Win would put Armstrong on short list of greats

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

BORDEAUX, France Trying to pick the greatest cyclist in Tour de France history can be as tough as riding in the Alps.

It could be the Belgian known as The Cannibal, or the fun-loving Frenchman who broke training with whiskey and foie gras.

Maybe it's the calculating Spaniard who could measure a rival by simply watching him pump his legs on a bike.

And then there's Lance Armstrong.

As cycling's most prestigious race zooms toward a gripping finale Sunday in Paris, the 31-year-old Texan could end up among the illustrious riders who have won the showcase event five times.

Armstrong will try to match Miguel Indurain, the only person with five straight Tour triumphs. Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx also share the record of five titles, but theirs weren't consecutive.

Cycling enthusiasts could debate each champion's merits for hours. Indurain, for one, votes for Merckx, a Belgian who won the Tour in 1969-72 and 1974.

And the Spaniard nicknamed Big Mig isn't so sure where Armstrong stands.

''Merckx raced in everything perhaps too many races in the end but he used to win them all, so for me he is the best,'' Indurain said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press.

''Armstrong is a great cyclist, but it is difficult to consider him a legend yet,'' he said.

By finishing with the same time as Jan Ullrich with a conservative ride Thursday, Armstrong maintained his 67-second lead over the 1997 champion with three stages left. The American kept the overall leader's yellow jersey for the 53rd time, the fourth-highest total in race history.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about Armstrong's success in the Tour is that he was given less than a 50 percent chance to survive the cancer that spread to his lungs and brain in late 1996.

But he beat the disease and resumed racing in 1998. A year later, when many dismissed Armstrong's chances, Indurain predicted the American would win the Tour de France.

The Spaniard was right.

''I have a lot of respect for Armstrong,'' Indurain said. ''He is a great person.''

It took Armstrong some time to prove that he could be great in the saddle against the sport's best during cycling's hardest test.

He made his Tour debut at 21 in 1993, when he became the youngest ever to win a stage. But he couldn't finish the marathon; he also quit before the finish in 1994. He was 36th in 1995, then pulled out in 1996.

Similarly, Indurain adjusted slowly to the Tour, dropping out in 1985 and 1986 before improving with 97th, 47th, 17th and 10th-place finishes.

Then Indurain began dominating the three-week struggle over thousands of miles, ruthless mountains, punishing heat and slippery descents. He won the race from 1991-95

Indurain reputedly could gauge a rival's strength by looking at the fluidity of his leg movement while riding. Never a spectacular climber, Indurain would gain time in solo time trials.

''He was an incredible time-trialist, the best that ever lived,'' Armstrong said.

Indurain's reign ended in 1996, when he finished 11th behind Bjarne Riis. The Spaniard won 12 stages in 12 Tours; Armstrong has won 16 in nine Tours.

Indurain was unflappable under pressure, and matched Armstrong for thorough preparation. Every Dec. 1, he began his season's preparation the same way with a 30-mile warmup.

Anquetil's priorities were a bit different.

While Armstrong measures every gram of his calorie intake, the Frenchman was known for enjoying the good life.

''I have scrapped the word 'diet' from my vocabulary,'' he famously said. ''I live the lifestyle I want.''

Nicknamed ''Master Jacques,'' Anquetil won his first Tour in 1957 and added titles from 1961-64.

While countryman Hinault might not have had Anquetil's flair, his competitive spirit was impressive. Racing in an era of intense rivalry, Hinault won in 1978-79, 1981-82 and racing with a broken nose after falling during a stage in Saint-Etienne 1985.

He also was the runner-up to Laurent Fignon in 1984 and Greg Lemond in 1986.

If Armstrong is known for his courage, Indurain for his speed, Anquetil for his grace and Hinault for his drive, Merckx might just embody all of those traits.

The Belgian, who earned his nickname for the way he would ''devour'' his rivals in the mountains and time trials, holds a slew of Tour records:

most stage victories in a career: 34;

most stage victories in a single Tour: eight;

most days wearing the yellow jersey: 96.

In 1969, Merckx won the Tour on his first try and also took the titles of best sprinter and best mountain climber.

He added victories the next three years, missed the 1973 Tour with an injury, and won again in 1974.

''I think he could have won more Tours,'' Indurain said. ''But he wore himself out.''

Stephen Roche, the 1987 champion, put the Belgian at No. 1.

''For me, Merckx is the best,'' Roche said, ''then Anquetil, Hinault, Armstrong and Indurain in that order.''

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