Armstrong wins Tour de France |

Armstrong wins Tour de France

Andrew Hood, Special to the Post Independent

PARIS – Before an estimated quarter-million people Sunday looking on at the heart of the City of Light, it was champagne toasts and American flags all around as the 2003 Tour de France returned to where it started three weeks ago – and finished with the same winner as the past four years.

Lance Armstrong endured what he called a “crisis-filled” Tour to join Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx, and Spaniard Miguel Indurain in cycling’s “five club” as five-time Tour winners.

“It was the hardest victory and it’s like a dream,” Armstrong said at the finish line on the Champs-Elysees.

Armstrong fought through a litany of problems and overcame a rejuvenated Jan Ullrich to claim final victory by 61 seconds, his smallest margin during his five-year Tour reign.

The overall race speed set a new record of 25.3 mph – 0.43 mph faster than the previous fastest, set by Armstrong, in 1999.

There were champagne toasts and smiles as Armstrong rolled across the finish line to win the Tour de France for a record-tying fifth time, but it was no easy feat.

Armstrong was challenged like never before the most exciting, crash-filled, attack-rich race in decades in what was a fitting spectacle for the Tour’s 100th birthday.

Armstrong actually lost 15 seconds to Ullrich on Sunday on the final sprint, but Armstrong looked relieved the race was behind him.

“We’re very lucky to be in this position now,” Armstrong said after clinching the Tour on Saturday. “This was absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons. Physically I was not super, tactically we made some mistakes.”

On cruise control

Since his dramatic cancer comeback in 1999, the 31-year-old Texan barnstormed to four consecutive Tour victories on what seemed to be cruise control. A super-fit Armstrong would knock out his opponents with a lethal one-two punch in the mountains – and in the time trials – winning by an average margin of almost seven in four years.

But this year it was Armstrong taking some punches, this time winning by just 61 seconds, his narrowest margin ever.

Laundry list of problems

Armstrong endured a laundry list of small – but serious – problems that almost added up to defeat. He suffered a bout of diarrhea before the start of the opening prologue, crashed the next day to tweak his back and then rode with tendonitis in his hip because new cycling shoes weren’t fitting quite right.

Mechanical problems haunted the team as well: Padrnos’ wheel fell off mid-race on the stage to Marseille; Armstrong cracked his bicycle frame when he fell at Luz Ardiden; and his brake rubbed over the grueling climb up to the Tour’s highest point at the Col du Galibier, high in the French Alps.

He was less than sharp through the Alps, losing to Spanish rider Iban Mayo at Alpe d’Huez before going on an off-road shortcut across a hay field to avoid crashing into Basque rider Joseba Beloki, who fell in front of him in Stage 9.

The `Tourminator’

Armstrong was humbled by Ullrich – nicknamed the “Tourminator” in 1997 on his way to his one and only Tour victory – in the first time trial at Cap Decouverte when he suffered acute dehydration in a stifling French heat-wave and lost more than 10 pounds of body weight.

In the Pyrenees, Armstrong was dropped on the climbing finish to Ax-3 Domaines and rolled across the finish line with his head hung low. The Tour had never seen Armstrong so vulnerable.

But when the chips were down, Armstrong rose to the occasion and shook off a dramatic crash when he was sent sprawling to the ground at the base of the grueling climb to Luz Ardiden.

Thanks to insistence from American Tyler Hamilton, his former teammate and now rival on Team CSC, the other riders waited for Armstrong to catch back up in honor of the code that fallen riders shouldn’t be attacked.

Then Armstrong surged to the front and went on one of his trademark solo attacks. While it wasn’t quite as fast and quite as strong as years past, it was enough to widen his lead over Ullrich.

Hamilton, meanwhile, became one of the most popular stories with his tenacity and determination to endure numbing pain after fracturing his collarbone in the Tour’s first stage.

He won Stage 16 and finished second in Saturday’s final time trial to move into fourth overall.

The final stages into Paris were all about damage control. Pushed to the limit in a desperate charge to steal the jersey, Ullrich crashed in Saturday’s time trial and the Tour was over, effectively.

Armstrong is poised to make a run on a record-settingsixth Tour victory. Each of the five-time winners faltered in chasing the elusive sixth Tour. Armstrong promises he won’t.

“Perhaps I cannot improve over my best, but I can certainly improve over this year, which wasn’t my best,” he said. “I won’t make the same mistakes again.”

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