|Sunday, July 27
Armstrong better than all the rest
By Andrew Hood
Special to ESPN.com
NANTES, France -- Lance Armstrong got his mojo back just in time Saturday to sew up his fifth Tour de France victory.
Only German rival Jan Ullrich stood between the 31-year-old Texan and his place among cycling's greatest ever. Ullrich crashed in Saturday's rainy, windy 19th stage, and Armstrong slid through Sunday's final stage without mishap to secure his fifth straight Tour victory.
The 31-year-old cancer survivor said this one was the hardest.
"This was absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons," said Armstrong, who finished third in Saturday's stage to widen his lead over Ullrich to 1 minute, 16 seconds.
"This close one feels different and feels better than all the other ones. I was extremely nervous this morning. I tried taking a nap, I couldn't sleep," he said. "It's very satisfying."
The hyped showdown between Big Jan and Big Tex was a soggy conclusion to one of the most exciting Tours in years. Ullrich started 1:05 behind Armstrong but fell with about 12km to go in the rainy, twisting course in western France and lost any chance of surpassing the American.
"With more than 1 minute advantage, it's not my position to take a risk. He's the one that has to take a risk, don't take any risks," said Armstrong, who endured a long list of mishaps to win cycling's biggest prize. "When I heard that Jan crashed, for me the race was finished. I took it easy and really took no risks."
Armstrong had never lost a final time trial in his four previous consecutive Tour victories but was content to ride conservatively once he heard Ullrich fell and finished third.
Cofidis rider David Millar won the stage to make up for his disappointment of losing the opening prologue after his chain fell off in the final 500 yards.
With Sunday's final ceremonial stage on tap, Armstrong just has to avoid disaster before joining an elite list of riders. Only four men have won the Tour five times and one of them, French rider Bernard Hinault, congratulated Armstrong at the finish line.
"I'm not sure how I fit in there," Armstrong said. "It sure feels nice when a guy like Bernard Hinault says 'welcome to the club.' That's something special. I look at them different and I don't view myself as great as them."
A worthy opponent
"I knew before the prologue in Paris that it was going to be close," Armstrong said. "I didn't expect it to come down to the last decisive stages. This is a bit of a surprise."
Both Armstrong and Ullrich were overcoming their own personal battles, with Armstrong chasing history to try to become the fifth man to win five Tours with Ullrich trying to shake years of disappointment to regain his winning magic.
Armstrong endured his bumpiest Tour in years, fighting through crashes, near-misses, dehydration and questions of his strength to edge toward history.
"I feel like I have missed or dodged a lot of bullets. I feel like I wasn't on top of my game. I was able to survive the bad moments and limit my losses," Armstrong said Saturday. "At the end of the day, sometimes you have to survive to be able to win."
Ullrich, 29, was back from a horrible 2002 season, when he was busted for drunk driving, tested positive for the party drug Ecstasy, served a racing ban, underwent two knee surgeries and missed the Tour.
The quiet German won the Tour in just his second try in 1997 and was anointed cycling's next great champion. Just 23, Ullrich would gain too much weight in the off-season and then Armstrong returned from the deathbed in 1999 and pushed Ullrich into second-place status.
But Ullrich surprised many -- especially Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team -- with his strength and determination.
"I said at the start he was the biggest challenger. He gave us a lot of problems," Armstrong said. "He's back to his highest levels. For the first time that I've raced him, he kept us up at night longer than usual. Nobody makes me more motivated than Jan Ullrich. He's a big champion."
Ullrich stayed close in the Alps and delivered a stunning blow to Armstrong, taking 1:36 in the first time trial at Cap Decouverte. Before being derailed by Ullrich, Armstrong had ruled the time trials since his cancer comeback in 1999, losing just one in four years of Tour dominance by just 11 seconds.
Ullrich missed a chance to drive a stake into Armstrong, who was hobbled by dehydration in the searing French heat wave in the first two stages in the Pyrenees.
In a stroke of good fortune, temperatures cooled and Armstrong rebounded in the Luz Ardiden stage in one of the most spectacular stages of a spectacular Tour. He shaked off a horrible crash going up Luz Ardiden to win the stage and take control of the Tour.
His bad luck reads like a laundry list of every worst-case scenario: He was struck with a bad stomach before the Tour prologue, suffered his first-ever Tour crash since 1999 in the first stage, got through the Alps without a win and then experienced acute dehydration in Stage 12's time trial when he lost more than 10 pounds of body weight.
Just when things were looking up at Luz Ardiden, he eased too close to rowdy fans lining the narrow mountain road and hooked his right handlebar on a bag a fan was waving in front of the passing riders.
Armstrong's handlebars shot to the right and the four-time Tour champion was thrown hard to the ground, landing violently on the left side of his back.
"We're very lucky to be in this position now," Armstrong said. "In many ways it felt like an eerie Tour."
For all his bad luck, Armstrong had incredibly great luck, as well.
Armstrong walked away from the Stage 1 crash with a broken bike and a tweaked back, while compatriots Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton fared worse. Leipheimer was forced out of the race, and Hamilton fractured his collarbone.
In Stage 9, on the very last descent out of the Alps, Spanish rider Joseba Beloki crashed horribly coming into a corner too fast and abandoned the Tour with a broken leg.
Armstrong was hot on his wheel and was forced into a hay field to avoid hitting him. In a remarkable display of grace under pressure, Armstrong deftly bounced across a hay field and vaulted over a ditch before rejoining the race unharmed.
"I had a lot of luck. I'd always rather be lucky than good," Armstrong said. "I don't plan on being this vulnerable next year. I won't make the same mistakes again."
Will Armstrong come back for a run at a record sixth Tour?
He said yes, with conditions.
"This Tour took a little more out of me. I need to step out of cycling, relax a little bit and focus on 2004 in due time," Armstrong said. "I can promise you I will be back next year. I'm not coming back to get second or to lose, but rather to return to a level that I had for the first four victories. This year was not acceptable."
Armstrong has defied expectations since his dramatic comeback from cancer in 1999. Now he could defy history and become the first to win six.
Andrew Hood is an American freelance journalist based in Spain and has covered every Tour since 1996.