American Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, now ranks alongside the greatest bicycle racers ever. With his victory Sunday in the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong becomes only the fifth man to win cycling's premier event five times. The others are Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain of Spain. But only Indurain and Armstrong have achieved the feat in consecutive years.
Armstrong acknowledged that this year was the most difficult of his five victories. And during the Tour it was well-known that he was struggling. It was perhaps a sign that he would experience problems when he was involved in the 35-rider collision in the first full stage. He was fortunate to suffer only minor injuries. Later he was forced to peddle off the road on a steep mountain when one of his main rivals crashed in front of him. And he had another fall himself when he was brushed by a spectator.
He said he also had some mechanical problems, including a brake pad that was rubbing his rear tire for several hours during one of the mountain stages. During his final media news conference, Lance Armstrong also revealed some of his other difficulties.
"Just days before the tour, [I had] very bad diarrhea very bad stomach problems, that almost prevented me from making the trip on time," he said. "Then [I had] this problem with trying out new shoes and the cleats and tendentious in the hip. A lot of things, and it's not really my style to try to complain and make excuses for things. But there were enough physical problems that prevented me from feeling normal on the bike."
But to a man who survived cancer, Armstrong knows what it's like to persevere. And he needed to in order to beat German rival Jan Ullrich. Ullrich had finished second to Armstrong in both 2000 and 2001 and he wanted badly to beat the American this year. When he thoroughly dominated Armstrong in the second individual time trial, many believed Ullrich could eventually overtake him in the overall standings. But then Armstrong seemed to dig deeper for whatever reserve energy he had, won a stage and increased his lead back over a full minute. His final margin over Ullrich was 61 seconds, nearly five minutes worse than the closest of his previous four victories.
"I said in the start that he was the biggest challenger, and this was indeed the case," Armstrong said of Ullrich. "He gave us a lot of problems. He's back to his highest level maybe even higher than before. And for the first time that I've raced him, he kept us up at night [worrying], longer than usual. I think it's great. I like Jan a lot. Nobody makes me more motivated than Jan Ullrich. I don't know why. But in my opinion he's a big champion." But Lance Armstrong is the bigger champion, with five Tour de France victories to Jan Ullrich's one.
Armstrong was pressed by reporters on his aim now for a record sixth title. "This tour took a lot out of me, and the stress level was much higher than it has been in the past. So for me now I need to step back from cycling and from the races and relax a little bit and focus on 2004 in due time," he said. "But I can promise you that that focus won't be anytime soon. But I'll be back next year and I'm not coming back to get second. I'm not coming back to lose. In many ways I'm coming back to hopefully return to a level that I had for the first four, because this year was not acceptable."
Lance Armstrong is 31 years old. The other cyclist with five straight Tour de France victories, Miguel Indurain, won his last Tour at age 31. Armstrong said he believes he can be competitive for two, three or maybe four more years. He was asked if it's his dream to go out as the champion.
"I think that's a dream. It's a dream for most athletes," he said. "Often athletes have the tendency to stick around longer than their body wants to or their body should. And there are other reasons that keep them in a sport for reasons we all understand. But that's a dream, and I don't know. As I've said many times, I hope I can just know the moment when it's time to walk away. I've been here (as a professional cyclist) for 11 or 12 years now, so my time is limited. I know that. I don't plan on doing a farewell year or a farewell tour. I'd like to go out on top, but I don't know when that is."
But American cyclist Lance Armstrong does know with his fifth straight Tour de France victory, he truly ranks in history among the sport's elite.