Armstrong wins record-tying 5th straight Tour de France

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 28, 2003

PARIS (AP) - Just moments after Lance Armstrong won his record-tying consecutive fifth Tour de France title, he was already motivated to win another.

''The other years, I won by six, seven minutes,'' Armstrong said. ''I think it makes it more exciting and sets up an attempt for No. 6.''

Triumphant over crashes, illnesses, hard-charging rivals and some bad luck, Armstrong sipped champagne in the saddle Sunday as he coasted to the Champs-Elysees in Paris to get his winner's trophy.

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But it was close. For Armstrong, used to winning the Tour by comfortable margins, his 61-second victory over Jan Ullrich just wasn't good enough.

''I love cycling, I love my job and I will be back,'' Armstrong said. ''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.''

Armstrong's problems almost overwhelmed him. He had a stomach flu that was so bad before the Tour, he nearly didn't make the flight to France. He was bruised in a crash in the second day. He lost 11 pounds through dehydration riding a time trial in a heat wave and struggled up the Tour's most daunting climb, the 8,728 1/2-feet Col du Galibier, with a faulty back brake rubbing against the wheel.

''It takes a little bit out of you with the brake on,'' Armstrong said. ''Those sort of problems just kept happening.''

His rivals took notice, sensing that after four years, Armstrong - cancer survivor - was ready to fall. Armstrong, however, was down but not out.

His turning point came last Monday on a mist-shrouded 8.3-mile ascent to the Pyrenean ski station of Luz-Ardiden, one of the Tour's hardest climbs. Typically for this drama-packed Tour, Armstrong fell when a spectator's outstretched bag hooked his handlebars. But he got back up and rode like a man possessed to roar past Ullrich, who in a gesture of sportsmanship waited for him to get back on his bike.

''At the start of the climb, I knew that that was where I needed to win the Tour,'' Armstrong said. ''At the finish, I was confident that that was enough.''

Ullrich came into the Tour from two knee operations, a ban for using recreational drugs, and the collapse of his Team Coast. He's already thinking about next year.

''I delivered one of my best races ever,'' Ullrich said. ''This time, I was very close to Armstrong. The next time, without Coast-chaos, I will be even better prepared.''

The 29-year-old German has won just once, in 1997, and finished as the runner-up five times.

Perhaps the greatest damage done was to Armstrong's aura of invincibility. Next year, to overcome rivals who saw him struggle, Armstrong will need to prove that this Tour was just a blip and that he's back and better than ever.

Armstrong wouldn't say how much longer he'd race beyond next year, when he'll be 32. But he hopes to quit undefeated.

''That's a dream,'' he said. ''I hope I can just know the moment when it's time to walk away. I've been here for 11 or 12 years now, so my time is limited. I know that. But I don't plan on doing a farewell year, a farewell Tour. I'd like to go out on top, but I don't know when that is.''

''Every year it gets more difficult, and he'll face some tough rivals,'' said Miguel Indurain, before Armstrong the only rider to win five straight Tours.

Over the 23-day, 2,125-mile event, his average speed was 25.38 mph - breaking his own record, set in 1999.

Besides Armstrong and Indurain, just three other riders have won the Tour five times, but not consecutively. They are Belgium's Eddy Merckx, and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. If Armstrong doesn't win a sixth title, the question of who is the best will long be debated.

''Armstrong's courageous, a fighter. Somebody who perseveres until the end,'' said Hinault, whose wins came in 1978-1979, 1981-1982 and 1985.

''You have to do like him to beat him. He's certainly a star, but I don't know if he's a superstar. It's a new generation of riders. They have radios, they work more closely in teams. It's a different era,'' he said.

Indurain said he still views Merckx as the greatest.

''He competed in virtually every cycling competition, whereas Armstrong really only focuses on the Tour,'' he said.

Rivals are lining up to replace Armstrong as cycling's top athlete, but they also know that it might not happen any time soon.

''The only way to beat Armstrong is to hope that his form diminishes,'' said Italian Ivan Basso, who finished seventh. ''It can only happen with time. Up to now, he has shown there's no room for anybody else.''