The leader of the pack |

The leader of the pack

Andrew Hood
Special to the Post Independent

For four straight summers, cyclist Lance Armstrong has owned the roads of France en route to becoming America’s second superstar on wheels.

There’s very little reason to believe the script will change Saturday as Armstrong begins his quest for his fifth consecutive Tour de France victory.

The Texan, 31, looks as fit and determined as ever, and he’s quietly confident he’ll deliver the goods like he has every July since 1999.

“Call me a favorite, but don’t say it’s as if I’ve already won the Tour,” Armstrong said last month. “It’s not that simple. It will be three really hard weeks.”

For Armstrong, never known for his boasting proclamations, that comes as close as bravado as you can expect. The four-time Tour winner has always preferred to let his racing do the talking. And talk, it does. Armstrong has dominated the Tour since his dramatic comeback from cancer, racking up an impressive record of 13 stage victories – he won two other Tour stages before 1996 – and four overall titles.

Elite company

If Armstrong rolls onto the cobbles of the famed Champs Elysees in Paris on July 27 wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey, the win would put him in elite company. Only four men – France’s Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spanish rider Miguel Indurain – have won the Tour five times.

But Armstrong insists he’s not chasing history. He’s chasing the Tour de France; and if it just so happens it’s one for the record books, well, that’s all the better.

“My first priority is to win again. If that means I am tying a record, breaking a record, I’ll be honored. I am trying to take this year to year,” Armstrong told more than 50 journalists, who earlier this month flew to France just to hear cycling’s strongman speak.

“I’ll count when I’m finished,” Armstrong said.

Only 21 stages, 197 of the world’s strongest bicycle racers from 22 teams, 21 steep mountain climbs and 2,084 miles of asphalt stand between Armstrong and history.

“Lance is relaxed, ready and focused,” said Johan Bruyneel, sports director of Armstrong’s team, sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. “The team is motivated and everyone is focused on what’s most important – winning the Tour.”

Whether Armstrong likes to admit it, this year’s Tour de France is special. The race will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, something the French are taking very seriously. There will be lots of pomp and circumstance, and even the route follows much of the original 1903 course.

Armstrong brushes off such talk of history and celebration, saying he aims to arrive in Paris simply to win.

“The 100th Tour is special, because it shows the tradition of this event. But from an athlete’s point of view, it’s the 2003 Tour de France,” Armstrong said. “It’s a nice reminder of the event, but when you ask the riders, they race it like it’s their first or their last.”

Never seriously challenged

Armstrong is unquestionably the strongest rider of his generation. No one’s been able to touch Armstrong, either in the steep torturous roads of the Alps or Pyrenees or in the time trials, when riders head out on the course one at a time. In four years, Armstrong has never been seriously been challenged in cycling’s marquee race. Only 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich gives Armstrong a fright, but the German has struggled with injuries and a doping sanction.

“Lance has not shown any weaknesses for the past four years and I don’t expect that to change this year,” says Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former teammate-turned-rival now on Team CSC. “His ability to focus and prepare is without comparison in the world of cycle sport. I cannot imagine who would be able to threaten his position.”

Earlier this month, Armstrong proved once again June 15 he’s the alpha male of the cycling pack by winning the eight-day Dauphine Libere high in the French Alps.

`A wake-up call’

But if the Tour de France seems to be getting routine, a scary crash reminded everyone that even the invincible Armstrong is human. Armstrong was whipping down a relatively benign descent two days earlier, during the Dauphine’s fifth stage, when he went skidding to the ground at an estimated 40 mph, his first serious crash in a race since 1999.

“That crash just shows that anything can happen at any moment,” said Jogi Mueller, a former pro now acting as Armstrong’s press agent in Europe. “Lance avoids trouble by staying at the front of the peloton, and that only comes through hard work. But the crash was a wake-up call for everyone.”

Armstrong only suffered minor cuts to his elbow and hip and retreated to his home base in Girona, Spain, to recover from his spill and spend time with his wife, Kristen, and their three children in his final ramp up for the Tour.

Staying focused

Armstrong and his entourage are trying not to think too much about the fifth victory, the Tour’s centenary, or about trying to make the hard-to-please French people happy.

“We must stick together and stay focused not on what we accomplished in the past, but what we want to do this year,” said Bruyneel, a former pro who’s guided Armstrong to his four victories. “This Tour won’t be any harder or easier than the second or third or the fourth. The Tour is what we want to win.”

Armstrong puts everything into the Tour, a risky tactic considering just one bad day, sickness or a crash can derail an entire season’s work.

But that’s Armstrong’s signature. For him, it’s the Tour or nothing.

So far, it’s worked pretty well.

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