Armstrong collects sixth straight Tour de France title

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004

PARIS Lance Armstrong raced onto the crowd-lined Champs-Elyses as a yellow blur, bathed in the shimmering light of a 24-carat, gold-leaf bike, a golden helmet and the race leader's yellow jersey.

Earlier, he let up on the pedals long enough to sip some celebratory champagne.

Nothing but the best for cycling's best.

Armstrong rode into history Sunday, winning a record sixth Tour de France and cementing his place as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Never in its 101-year history has the Tour had a winner like Armstrong who just eight years ago was given less than a 50 percent chance of overcoming testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.

His streak of six straight crowns has helped reinvigorate the greatest race in cycling, steering it into the 21st century. And the Tour, as much a part of French summers as languid meals over chilled rose, molded Armstrong into a superstar.

Taking advantage of the leisurely pace of the final stage, Armstrong sat up in the saddle and held up all five fingers on his black-gloved right hand and the index finger on his left.

Counting to six was never so sweet for the 32-year-old Texan.

''It might take years. I don't know. It hasn't sunk in yet. But six, standing on the top step on the podium on the Champs-Elyses, is really special,'' he said.

The ride into Paris and its famous tree-lined boulevard was a lap of honor Armstrong savored with the champagne. Even Jan Ullrich, his main adversary in previous years, gulped down a glass offered by Armstrong's team manager through his car window.

''The last laps there, I thought, 'Ah, I want to get this over with,''' Armstrong said. ''But then I thought to myself, 'You know, you might want to do a few more laps, because you may not ever do it again.' And you can't take it for granted.''

President Bush called soon after his fellow Texan crossed the finish line. ''You're awesome,'' Bush told him.

With the Arc de Triomphe in the background, Armstrong put his yellow bicycle cap over his heart during the raising of the American flag and playing of ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' It might be his last time on the podium, at least for a while. Armstrong has said he might skip the sport's showcase event next year.

Belgian rider Tom Boonen won the final sprint, with Armstrong cruising safely behind with the trailing pack to claim his title. Armstrong's winning margin over second-placed Andreas Kloden was 6 minutes, 19 seconds, with Italian Ivan Basso in third (6:40). Ullrich was fourth (8:50), his worst finish.

Armstrong opened a new page for the Tour in 1999, just one year after the race faced its worst doping scandal, ejecting the Festina team after police caught one of its employees with a stash of drugs.

Armstrong's victories and his inspiring comeback from cancer have drawn new fans to a race that has been won five times by four other riders. His professionalism, attention to detail, grueling training regimens and tactics have raised the bar for other riders hoping to win the three-week cycling marathon.

''He's changed the Tour forever,'' fellow American rider Bobby Julich said. ''He has set the blueprint for success, and he deserves all the success that he is getting.''

Eye-catching in the bright yellow shirt he works so hard for, Armstrong donned a golden cycling helmet for a relaxed roll past sun-baked fields of wheat and applauding spectators into Paris from Montereau in the southeast. He rode a $10,000, carbon-fiber, gold-leaf bike, which Trek will sell in stores later this year.

Armstrong joked and chatted with teammates who wore special blue jerseys with yellow stripes. They stretched in a line across the road with their leader for motorcycle-riding photographers to record the moment. The team was the muscle behind Armstrong's win, leading him in grueling mountain climbs, shielding him from crashes and wind, and keeping him stoked with drinks and food.

Last year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds by far his narrowest victory. He now admits he was not in great shape.

''I paid the price and learned a valuable lesson, and I won't ever make that mistake again,'' he said.

This year, he roared back with renewed fire.

''It's as if I was with my five friends and we were 13 years old and we all had new bikes and we said, 'OK, we're going to race from here to there,''' he said. ''You want to beat your friends more than anything. You're sprinting and you're attacking. It was like that for me. A simple pleasure.''

With five solo stage wins and a team time-trial victory with his U.S. Postal Service squad, this was Armstrong's best Tour. But it was also one in which he was forced to defend himself against claims he might be taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Repeatedly pointing out he has never failed a test, Armstrong attributes his success to hard training and says the accusations only fuel his motivation.

Last week, he chased down Filippo Simeoni, an Italian rider who has testified about drug use within cycling, when he tried to surge ahead of the pack to win a stage. Armstrong's team also chased down Simeoni several times when he rode at the front Sunday.

Before the Tour, Armstrong sued authors of a book who implied, without offering proof, that he used drugs.

''They want to create pressure that cracks you,'' Armstrong said. ''So, internally I say, 'OK, I will never crack because of that. This will not crack me.'''

Armstrong built his lead from Day 1, placing second in the third-fastest debut time trial in Tour history. That performance silenced doubts that Armstrong was past his prime.

''He's been the strongest man for the last six years,'' Kloden said. ''It's unbelievable.''

Even more so than in other Tours that he dominated, Armstrong finished off rivals in the mountains with three victories in the Alps, including a time trial on the legendary climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, and another in the Pyrenees. He also took the final time trial on Saturday, even though he his overall lead was so big he didn't need the win.

''We never had a sense of crisis, only the stress of the rain and the crashes in the first week,'' Armstrong said. ''I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better. Some of them just completely disappeared.''

Armstrong still hasn't decided whether he will back next year to compete in the race he loves above all others, for which he trains relentlessly, leaving his three children in Texas, with former wife Kristin, while he pounds the roads in Europe.

Seven victories would be like owning seven sports cars, nice but not necessary. Armstrong says he's interested in trying other races like the Giro d'Italia, and breaking the one-hour cycling world record.

Victory has brought Armstrong fame, wealth and softened some of the brashness he displayed when he was younger. He's learned rudimentary French and says his love of the Tour won't end with retirement when he plans to watch the race on TV.

''I don't know what I'll do next summer. I suspect I'll be here,'' he said. ''It's too big of a race. My only hesitance is I think the people and the event perhaps need a change, new faces, a new winner.

''If I'm here,'' he added. ''I race to win.''

Associated Press writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

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