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Armstrong wins fourth straight Tour

Tour de Lance, IV

Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002

PARIS -- Voila! Just like that, Lance Armstrong is Tour de France champion for a fourth straight time.

The Texan with the iron legs to match his will already is thinking about winning again. And again.

Looking ahead to 2004 and the possibility of becoming the only six-time winner of the Tour, Armstrong said his U.S. Postal Service team is ''one of the strongest in the history of cycling. I hope to ride with them for two more years.''

''It's always complicated, difficult to reach the maximum level,'' he said. ''I love the race, my job, cycling.''

Armstrong was right where he seems to belong Sunday, cruising toward the tree-lined Champs-Elysees with a bright yellow jersey on his back. He never relinquished the overall leader's shirt after putting it on 10 days ago when he took control with his trademark surges through the mountains.

The 30-year-old cyclist who overcame cancer has turned the grueling three-week event into his personal showcase. As he cycled in the main pack in Sunday's 20th stage, he held a glass of champagne -- enjoying a little sip early on -- and he took a congratulatory call from President Bush after the victory ceremony.

''I'm really happy to finish,'' Armstrong said. ''It's a difficult race, three weeks. It's difficult mentally.''

Not Sunday, though. The final stage of 89 1/4 miles into Paris is traditionally a mostly ceremonial ride, and Armstrong took time to pose for photographs with an arm draped over the shoulders of another rider.

He could afford to dally. Armstrong's tranquil ride to the finish mirrored the rest of the Tour. Neither rivals nor the demanding course of 2,032 miles seemed to test him during a race with fewer of the unfounded accusations that Armstrong takes banned drugs (he's never failed a test).

He covered all that ground with an overall time of 82 hours, 5 minutes, 12 seconds. The winning margin over runner-up Joseba Beloki of Spain was 7:17, making it Armstrong's second-biggest victory. He beat Alex Zuelle by 7:37 in 1999 for his first Tour de France championship.

Raimondas Rumsas of Lithuania was third overall, 8:17 back. No other rider finished within 13 minutes of Armstrong.

Thousands of fans watched Sunday, many waving the Stars and Stripes, as Armstrong moved closer to the Tour record of five titles, shared by four riders. Only Miguel Indurain won five in a row, from 1991-95.

And Armstrong is the first American with four Tour trophies. Greg Lemond, the only other U.S. champion of cycling's most prestigious event, won three.

Asked about the 2003 Tour, Armstrong said: ''Of course, I will try to win.''

As he went up to the podium for the victory ceremony, Armstrong waved to the crowd, which roared its approval back at the rider who lives in Europe much of the year and often does interviews in French. He smiled broadly when he was presented with a bouquet of yellow flowers that matched his jersey. Armstrong stood with his cap pressed against his heart as the ''Star Spangled Banner'' played.

The cyclist from Austin, Texas, has inspired many people -- not just sports fans -- because of his struggle with testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and brain and nearly killed him six years ago. His Lance Armstrong Foundation raises money for cancer survivors.

''Lance is doing so much for the cancer community, so we said we have to do something for him,'' said a member of the foundation, Jerry Kelly of Birmingham, Ala., who followed the race around France with his wife.

Robbie McEwen of Australia -- well back in the overall standings -- won Sunday's stage and took the green jersey for the Tour's best sprinter. Laurent Jalabert of France won the red polka-dot jersey as best climber, while Ivan Basso of Italy won the white jersey for best young rider.

Armstrong, meanwhile, was simply the best.

He seized the lead in the first mountain leg at La Mongie in the Pyrenees, and nearly doubled it by sprinting up a tough climb to the Plateau de Beille in the next day's 12th stage.

On the formidable Mont Ventoux in the southern Provence region, Armstrong finished third but still took a comfortable lead of 4:21 by finishing nearly 2 minutes in front of his nearest pursuer, Beloki.

''Armstrong has shown he has the blood of champions flowing through his veins,'' the head of Beloki's team, Manolo Saiz, said after the Ventoux stage.

''He is much stronger than us. We see it day after day.''

Indeed, despite already holding a daunting edge in the overall standings, Armstrong went out and padded the lead by 45 seconds in the last three mountain stages.

Then, as if feeling the need to show how truly dominant he is, Armstrong won the 19th stage Saturday by nearly a minute.

Even if he doesn't manage to add a fifth or sixth Tour title to his collection, Armstrong knows he's made his mark.

''Regardless of one victory, two victories, four victories, there's never been a victory by a cancer survivor,'' he said.

''That's a fact that hopefully I'll be remembered for.''



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