Armstrong Gets Historic Tour de France Victory
Vive le Lance, for the sixth time
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A01
PARIS, July 25 -- Just as he beat the steepest odds in overcoming cancer nearly a decade ago, American Lance Armstrong triumphed Sunday as the first cyclist in the 101-year history of the Tour de France to win his sport's most prestigious race six times.
Armstrong, the overall leader for a third of the grueling 2,000-mile competition, rode the final stage into Paris at what, for him, was an almost leisurely pace. Adorned with a golden helmet, he flashed a relaxed smile and six fingers at the cameramen hanging shotgun from an entourage of motorcycles.
He reached the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees just before 4:45 p.m. and, after the obligatory eight loops on Paris's most magnificent boulevard, crossed the finish line without any special flourish, wedged deep within the huge peloton of riders.
Only when he stepped atop the awards podium did the 32-year-old Texan jubilantly embrace the unprecedented achievement he had refused for so long to consider. This, despite relentless speculation since the Tour began in Liege, Belgium, three weeks ago.
"In 1999, I never thought I would win a second or a third one or however many," Armstrong said at a news conference after the race, only minutes after taking a cell phone call from President Bush. "Making history is incredibly special."
Perhaps not as many American and Texas flags waved in the crowd as in years past. But no matter the world's geopolitics, the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the boulevard under sunny skies cheered and applauded as appreciatively for Armstrong as any rider.
"J'aime Lance Armstrong," declared Parisian Dominique Champenois, who wore a stars and stripes bandana in his honor. "Why? Because he is a grand champion," she explained in French, with "tres courage."
In cycling, her hero stands alone, separate from Jacques Anquetil, from Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, even from Eddy Merckx, the Belgian rider regarded by many as the greatest ever. Each won five Tours and Indurain, like Armstrong, managed those consecutively.
But none could clinch a sixth victory.
Their failed attempts gave rise to "the curse of the sixth." Naysayers wondered whether it would hold one more time, and Armstrong's age, they suggested, might prove a double curse. None of the rest was a Tour champion after 31.
"Winning six times does not make me a better rider than those champions," Armstrong said. "Today's cycling is just different."
He did not merely win this race so much as dominate it. Supported flawlessly by his U.S. Postal teammates, he suffered only a minor crash early on and none of the setbacks or struggles that marred his Tour last year.
Armstrong won three of the four most punishing road stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, all in dramatic one-on-one sprints. He also won the two individual time trials -- by more than a minute each -- powering his way up and through the brutal 21 switchbacks of L'Alpe d'Huez, as well as the penultimate stage that took him to the edge of history.
By then, French television announcers were practically hyperventilating. Over and over they showed clips of his previous victories, concluding with the shot of him Sunday, cap in hand, hand over heart, framed against the Arc de Triomphe as the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played once again.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company