Armstrong's Race Against Time
At 32, American Is Vying for an Unprecedented 6th Straight Tour de France
By Keith Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page D01
One year ago, after 83 tortuous hours over nearly 2,200 miles, cycling superstar and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong rode into the history books, becoming the second cyclist to win the Tour de France five consecutive times.
But it was not an easy win, as even Armstrong admits, and it came after one of his most uneven performances to date. There were two crashes and a dangerous near miss, and Armstrong conceded later, "I was not on top of my game."
Armstrong said at the time that ragged performance was due to overconfidence. "It was a complicated year, professionally, personally, emotionally," Armstrong said, in a news conference in Brussels last December. "It was a challenging year. I came into a point where I thought I was a little bit too comfortable with success. It's the hardest sporting event in the world and I took it for granted, and it's just not that easy."
This year, Armstrong attempts what no man has yet accomplished -- a sixth consecutive Tour de France win. Only he and Spaniard Miguel Indurain (1991-95) have won five straight. The obstacles against Armstrong this Tour are formidable.
"It's not a one-day race," Armstrong said this week at a news conference in Liege, Belgium, site of Saturday's prologue. "It's very difficult to win. There's many, many things that could happen. I could just flat out lose the race to a better rider. So I prefer to face it one day at a time."
His opponents in 2003 glimpsed something Armstrong has rarely allowed rivals to see: vulnerability. And this time, he is battling age -- he is 32, just past the age when even the Tour's past greats have tried for just one more, and fallen short.
And where last year Armstrong had help from the unexpected bad fortune of his chief competitors -- Jan Ullrich's famous spill in the penultimate stage in Nantes, Tyler Hamilton's broken collarbone -- this time around his rivals seem primed and ready for a chance to dethrone him.
"It's important that someone finally shows Lance that there's someone better," said Ullrich, the German captain of the T-Mobile team. The 1997 Tour winner, Ulrich is the rider Armstrong professes to worry about most. Speaking to reporters in Bonn recently, Ullrich, referring to his string of second-place finishes to Armstrong, said, "I don't want to be second, I want to be first."
Another cyclist with his sights on toppling Armstrong this year is the Spanish Basque rider Iban Mayo, who is coming off a win in June's eight-day Dauphine Libere, often seen as a precursor to the Tour. Armstrong won the Dauphine last year, but this year managed only fourth, a full two minutes behind Mayo. "It was an interesting week," Armstrong said after the Dauphine. "I was not as super as I would have wished."
Then there is Hamilton, Armstrong's once-loyal lieutenant and friend, who even has a home near Armstrong's in the northern Spanish town of Girona. Hamilton, also an American, put in a tough 2003 performance after breaking a collarbone early in the race, even managing to win a stage and, remarkably considering his injury, coming in fourth overall. At 33, Hamilton appears to recognize that this may be his last chance to win the Tour.
To age, and a stable of determined riders, add in the heavy weight of history. Three five-time winners have tried and failed to win a sixth Tour. If Armstrong should accomplish it, his status as cycling legend would be cemented.
Legend "is a big, big word and I'm not sure that I'm ready to talk about that right now," Armstrong said.
The route of this year's Tour appears to present a formidable obstacle. In an effort to maintain suspense and generate excitement, the organizers have devised a grueling counter-clockwise Tour around the country that leaves the most difficult mountain stages to the final week. After a relatively easy and mostly flat meander, the Tour will enter the Pyrenees on July 16 and 17, and then move into the unforgiving Alps on July 20. The next day will see an unprecedented uphill time trial to the infamous Alpe d'Huez, followed by two more days in the mountains. The penultimate stage, July 24, will be an individual time trial that could well decide the race.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"It's very difficult to win," Lance Armstrong said of world's premier cycling event. Three 5-time Tour de France winners have tried and failed to win a sixth.
(Peter Dejong -- AP)