Armstrong cruises to Tour win

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2000

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong raised a glass of champagne even before he crossed the finish line -- celebrating a Tour de France win that was even sweeter this time around.

Armstrong has a habit of making the impossible look easy, whether conquering cancer or winning one of the world's most grueling sporting events for the second straight year.

Because of his insurmountable lead in Sunday's final stage of the Tour de France, riders joked and clowned with the 28-year-old Texan as they coasted past the famous sites of Paris and throngs of spectators.

Shortly after the cyclists took off from the Eiffel Tower, Armstrong played his part by donning a long-haired wig.

As he passed the Louvre Museum, he grabbed a pocket camera and took snapshots of the flag-waving Americans shooting pictures of him.

He even was passed a glass of local bubbly and made a toast as he pedaled, even though he'd earlier declared he wasn't ''a champagne kind of guy.''

Indeed, he didn't look much like a guy who'd just cycled 2,250 miles for three weeks.

''It was a hard Tour de France and, like last year, I'm glad it's finished and I can see more of these guys,'' he said from the winner's podium, his wife Kristin at his side and 9-month-old son Luke cradled in his arms.

Somewhere in the crowd, too, were entertainers Robin Williams and Sean Penn, just a few of the thousands of Americans who helped fill the crowds lining the Champs-Elysees where Sunday's race concluded with a dozen sharp-turned circuits in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Stefano Zanini of Italy won the final mad sprint finish, and declared, ''I'm too happy.''

But most spectators were watching Armstrong as he proudly held his young son above his head, tears welling in his eyes.

''This one's even more special than last year, partly because of this little guy,'' Armstrong said. Luke was born three months after Armstrong's first Tour victory -- and just two years after he battled back from cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.

Armstrong won plaudits from his closest challengers, particularly Germany's top rider Jan Ullrich, who had questioned whether Armstrong really was 1999's best rider, when Ullrich didn't compete.

''Armstrong is a worthy champion. He was the strongest man, and he met our every attack. He earned his victory,'' said Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 but has finished second every year since.

Before the race, Armstrong was already looking ahead to September's Olympics in Sydney, and speculating openly about his prospects of clinching a first gold medal in the time trial competition. He won all three time trials in last year's Tour as well as a time trial Friday, his first stage victory in this year's Tour.

''It's special to ride for your country,'' he said in an interview aboard a special Orient Express train that carried all 128 riders into Paris on Sunday.

''Winning gold is a big objective,'' he said, noting that unlike last year, he was coming away from the Tour in strong mental shape. ''I had no motivation to ride again that year, but today I feel like I'm ready to go for it.''

His only scheduled appearance Sunday after the race was to attend a benefit for cancer research, a cause he's championed since being diagnosed in 1996 with advanced testicular cancer. Given less than a 40 percent chance of survival, he underwent brain surgery and chemotherapy and had a testicle removed.

He resumed professional competition in 1998 but skipped that year's Tour, which nearly fell apart over revelations that many top cyclists were using banned performance-enhancing drugs.

Armstrong himself was accused of using illegal drugs in 1999, an allegation traced to his use of a steroid-based skin cream for saddle sores. No such allegations surfaced this year, a factor Armstrong credited with making the competition less stressful even though it was physically more demanding, with four grueling stages through the Alps and Pyrenees.

As 2000 winner, Armstrong takes away $315,000, plus $7,200 for his stage win, and a range of bonuses for racking up points in other aspects of the Tour.

He will fly Tuesday to New York to begin a round of appearances before starting pre-Olympic training near his part-time French home of Nice next week.

Few Americans cheering on Armstrong from the sidelines knew much about cycling, but all admired his incredible comeback.

''He's a serious guy who knows he's been given another chance in life,'' said Bob Henderson, a fan from Palo Alto, Calif., where he's done fund-raising for Armstrong's cancer foundation.

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