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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 July, 2004, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Armstrong cruises into Tour history
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

The Champs Elysees was awash with American and even Texan flags on Sunday, with fans lining the route from early morning to cheer Lance Armstrong across the finishing line and into Tour de France history.

Spectators cheer on Lance Armstrong
Unsurpassed: Armstrong now has a historic sixth successive win
As the 32-year-old American cruised to victory six minutes and 19 seconds ahead of his closest rival, even sceptical French spectators were forced to admit that his is a remarkable achievement.

Seven years ago, when he was 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.

Several operations and four cycles of chemotherapy later, he fought back not just to recovery but to his first Tour de France win in 1999.

Since then, he has been unbeatable every year, though 2003 brought a nail-biting race against the German Jan Ullrich, with Armstrong coming in just 61 seconds ahead.

'Inspiration'

This year, the lean Texan has dominated the entire race, winning five stages to wear the leader's yellow jersey before clinching overall victory.

His performance has inspired cycling fans, who came from far and wide to line the streets of Paris to watch the first man to win a sixth victory in the Tour de France, a feat unequalled in the race's 101-year history.

He's just a superman - amazing
Anna from New York
Waving a US flag, Anna had come from New York to see her hero enter the record books.

"He's just a superman - amazing - and how long he can keep doing this, who knows," she said.

"He is phenomenal and this is a historic moment."

Others agreed.

"He's in a class of his own - nobody could touch him!" said one young cycling fan.

Laura, a 24-year-old from the US, was equally enthusiastic. "He's one of our national heroes, and an inspiration to us all," she said.

"He's the Schumacher of cycling, and he's been brilliant for the Tour de France," said one French fan, who didn't go quite so far as to wave the Stars and Stripes but cheered him on with a sign reading "Allez Lance!"

Jim from Ireland is a cancer survivor who was inspired by Armstrong's example, and came to France to cheer him on.

"I wanted to come the last two years, but I was too ill," he said.

"This year, I was determined to see him win again. He is an absolute hero - and to come back and win the Tour de France six times in a row despite his illness, it's incredible."

French 'ambivalence'

Yet even though Armstrong's achievement has won him huge respect and admiration in France, there is little affection for him here.

Eric Collier, deputy sports editor at Le Monde newspaper, explained: "People are still ambivalent about him here.

"It's not that we don't like him, it's more that people respect him but don't find him very warm or very human," he said.

Lance Armstrong rides to victory in the penultimate stage of the Tour de France
Armstrong says part of his grit comes from his fight against cancer
"We like to see the suffering on the cyclists' faces as they climb the mountain stages, and we love the people who come second, like Jan Ullrich now or Polidor.

"And the French find it hard to believe Armstrong went from being a good rider who couldn't climb well in the mountain stages to being the best rider in 1999," he said.

"He seemed very arrogant a few years ago, though he's improved his communications since then."

The French have often alleged that drugs must have played a part in Armstrong's success, a charge he vehemently denies. As a leading athlete, Armstrong is tested between 30 and 40 times a year, both in and out of competition, and he has always tested clean.

He saw off a two-year French investigation which again turned up no sign of drugs whatsoever.

Punishing

Armstrong himself credits his success to a brutally punishing training regime, absolute fitness and dedication and the mental will to win that came from his battle against cancer.

So, grudgingly or not, the French have to admit that this Sunday he has surpassed all the other Tour de France cycling greats - including the five-time winners, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, the Belgian Eddie Merckx, French legend Bernard Hinault, and the Spaniard Miguel Indurain.

Whether or not he competes next year, the man who was once told he might not live, let alone cycle again, has achieved a record he can be proud of, as he admitted just before the final stage.

"When I won the first Tour de France, I thought I could die and go away a happy man. To win six is very hard to put into words," he said.

"I'm happy because it's over. I'm tired, in the head, in the legs. Everywhere."


SEE ALSO:
Armstrong hungry for more
24 Jul 04 |  Cycling
Posties pack a punch
23 Jul 04 |  Cycling


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