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Armstrong wins historic sixth Tour de France

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Associated Press

Posted: 3 hours ago

PARIS (AP) - Lance Armstrong rode into history Sunday by winning the Tour de France for a record sixth time, an achievement that confirmed the victory-hungry cancer survivor as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.

His sixth crown elevated Armstrong above four great five-time champions. And never in its 101-year-old history has the Tour had a winner like the Texan who just eight years ago was given less than a 50 percent chance of conquering a deadly form of testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.

Armstrong's unbeaten streak since 1999 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 sporting superstar.

No. 6. The record. The achievement was almost too much even for Armstrong to comprehend.

"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-Elysees is really special," he said.

For him, Sunday's final ride into Paris and its famous tree-lined boulevard was a lap of honor he savored with a glass of champagne in the saddle. Even Jan Ullrich, his big adversary in previous years who for the first time finished off the podium, gulped down a glass proffered by Armstrong's team manager through his car window.

Belgian rider Tom Boonen won the prestigious final sprint on the Champs-Elysees, with Armstrong cruising safely behind with a trailing pack to claim his crown. Armstrong's winning margin over second-placed Andreas Kloden was 6 minutes and 19 seconds, with Italian Ivan Basso third on 6:40. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and five-time runner-up, was fourth, 8:50 adrift. They were the only riders within 10 minutes of Armstrong.

Armstrong's average speed over the 3,391.1 kilometers (2,102.5 miles) raced was 40.533 kilometers per hour (25.13 miles per hour), second only to last year.

Australian Robbie McEwen won the green jersey, his second, as the Tour's best sprinter. Richard Virenque of France won a record seventh spotted jersey awarded for picking up points on the Tour's many mountain climbs. Russian Vladimir Karpets was anointed best young rider.

But yellow - the color of the race leader's and winner's jersey - counted most. Armstrong slipped into the shirt against the backdrop of the Arch of Triumph and raised the blue winner's trophy high above his head.

Armstrong, right hand over his heart, then stood with Kloden and Basso on the podium as the Star Spangled Banner rang out over the Champs-Elysees.

Armstrong, recovered from the cancer diagnosed in 1996, 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 the race. His professionalism, attention to detail, grueling training methods and tactics have raised the bar for those hoping to win the three-week cycling marathon.

Eye-catching in his yellow jersey that he works so hard for, Armstrong donned a golden cycling helmet for Sunday's relaxed roll past sun-baked fields of wheat and applauding spectators into Paris from Montereau in the southeast.

He 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-borne photographers to record the moment. The team was the muscle behind Armstrong's win, leading him up grueling climbs, shielding him from crashes and wind and keeping him stoked with drinks and foods.

Last year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds - by far his narrowest victory. He now says he was not in great shape and, after four dominant years, "thought I could win fairly easily."

"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. He built his lead from Day 1, placing second in the third-fastest debut time trial in Tour history.

That performance silenced doubts that Armstrong, at age 32, was past his prime. 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 his overall lead was so big at that point that 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."

Basque rider Iban Mayo peaked too early when he beat Armstrong in the warm-up Dauphine Libere race three weeks before the Tour. Mayo crashed in the Tour's rain-soaked, nervous first week, racing toward a treacherous stretch of cobblestones that Armstrong crossed safely. Mayo finally abandoned after the Pyrenees.

Former Armstrong teammates Roberto Heras, left trailing in the mountains, and American Tyler Hamilton, badly bruised in a crash, also went home. Ullrich never recovered from seeing Armstrong zoom into the distance for two straight days in the Pyrenees.

There, the only rider to stay with Armstrong was Basso, a 26-year-old with the makings of a future winner.

But Armstrong's race was not without distractions and claims that his success is aided by drugs. The Texan has repeatedly denied such accusations, attributing his wins to hard training, and says that claims of drug-use only fuel his motivation.

Last week, he personally 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 during Sunday's stage.

Before the Tour, Armstrong also launched legal action against authors of a new book that implied, without offering ironclad proof, that he has used performance-enhancers.

"Trash journalism, sensational journalism, for me is a motivating factor," Armstrong said. "The more that happens, the more I realize that this faction, this part of your world, the journalism world, wants me to lose. They want to create pressure that cracks you. So internally I say, 'OK, I will never crack because of that. This will not crack me."'

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

"I don't know what I'll do next summer. I suspect I'll be here. 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," he said. "If I'm here, I race to win."

Seven wins would be like owning seven sports cars, nice but not necessary. Armstrong says he's interested in trying other races - the Tour of Italy, Classics, and beating the 1-hour cycling world record held by Britain's Chris Boardman.

The five-time champions Armstrong passed are Eddy Merckx, Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.

Victory has brought Armstrong fame, wealth and softened some of the brashness he displayed as a young rider. 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 love the Tour de France," he said. "It's my buddy."


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