ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Lance Armstrong looks Tour-ready.
With a surprising burst of April power, Armstrong cruised to a
comfortable win Sunday in the Tour de Georgia, his first victory in
an American stage race since 1998.
Of course, this was only a prelude to Armstrong's summer plans --
going for a record sixth straight win in the Tour de France. By all
indications, he's right on schedule.
"I don't think I can say anything is wrong right now,"
Armstrong said, sporting a yellow jersey as the overall winner.
"Actually, things might be a little hot right now. I need to cool
down a bit."
To those who raced against Armstrong for six days through the
back roads of Georgia, there's no doubt he'll be riding
triumphantly down the Champs-Elysees in July with history on his
"There's no one who's going to beat him," said Canada's Gord
Fraser, who won the seventh stage of the six-day race with a
furious sprint to the line. "It's going to take something like a
tactical mistake for him to lose, but he doesn't make those."
Armstrong came into the final 88.4-mile stage of the Tour de
Georgia with a 24-second lead and simply had to make sure that
Germany's Jens Voigt, in second place, didn't break away.
Nearly everyone arrived in Alpharetta together, finishing the
race with four 3.6-mile circuits around the streets of the north
Tens of thousands of people lined the route, a stunning turnout
for a sport that has struggled to gain a foothold in the United
States. While just about every garage has a bike, few people have
shown an inclination to follow cycling on a regular basis.
Armstrong transcends the sport, making fans of those who don't
know the difference between a peloton and a breakaway. He's the guy
who beat cancer, then beat the Europeans at their own sport.
The fans waved yellow "Lance fans" to keep cool on a sunny,
humid day, and crowded around him like a rock star when he made his
way to the victory podium.
"Go get six!" the fans chanted as he held up the winner's
trophy -- a replica of two bike wheels holding up a peach.
So, how did the sport's greatest star wind up at a fledgling,
2-year-old race in Georgia?
After getting divorced, the Texan wanted to spend more time at
home with his three young children during the lead-up to the Tour
de France. The Tour de Georgia fit perfectly into his training
Armstrong took control by winning both stages Thursday, then
protected his lead during two grueling treks through the north
Georgia mountains. The final stage was academic -- Armstrong didn't
have go for the win, merely stay near the front, protected from
trouble by his U.S. Postal Service teammates.
"It's always nice to win," he said. "It's also nice to come
and meet some objectives, like doing a good time trial, doing some
good climbs. We worked well on the team. It was a complete win."
Armstrong came to Georgia with low expectations, pointing out
that he had not raced in three weeks. He wound up with his first
stage-race win in America since the Cascade Cycling Classic in
Oregon six years ago.
"Some guys can just relax when they don't need to win," said
Jonathan Vaughters, who runs the U.S. under-23 program. "But Lance
innately has something in him that puts pressure on himself to win,
no matter what."
Mario Cipollini came up the final hill with the lead, only to
have Fraser dip to the right and stick his front tire on the line
ahead of the Italian star. Armstrong finished 66th but was credited
with the same time as all 76 cyclists in the lead pack: 3 hours, 20
minutes, 15 seconds.
The overall winning time was 25:39:20, leaving Voigt with the
same 24-second deficit he had at the beginning of the day. American
Chris Horner, who won the inaugural Tour de Georgia, was third this
time against a much stronger field, 1:01 behind Armstrong.
Fraser relished his narrow win over Cipollini, who also was
nipped at the line by Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina. "Super Mario"
was apparently so disgusted at getting caught in a sprint -- his
specialty -- that he skipped out before the award ceremony. He was
fined by cycling's governing body and also forfeited his
third-place prize money.
"To come around a guy like Cippo in the sprint is very
rewarding," Fraser said. "I've never done that before."
Horner had never seen a crowd like this for a stage race in
America. Several attempts to establish the sport -- Tour de Trump,
Tour du Pont, Coors Classic -- faded away because of disinterest and
lack of sponsorship.
Maybe this time will be different.
"They were lined up for the entire circuit," Horner said.
"There was not a section of empty space the entire route. Every
turn, every neighborhood, the people were lined up."