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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
The 2003 Tour
By Matt Majendie

Not since 1989 when Greg Lemond overturned a 50-second deficit to Laurent Fignon on the final-stage time trial to win the race has the Tour been more electric.

The race had opened with everyone talking about when, rather than if, Lance Armstrong would pick up his fifth Tour victory.

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong celebrates his victory

As it happened, he suffered from dehydration and malnutrition, not to mention the heroics of rivals Joseba Beloki, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and Alexandre Vinokourov.

The organisers had been hoping for a thrilling event in what was the centenary year and it opened in electric fashion under the Eiffel Tower for the prologue.

Britain's David Millar looked on course for the win only for his chain to slip and him to lose out to Australia's Bradley McGee, while Armstrong was a distinctly average seventh.

The remainder of the week belonged to sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who won four of the first six stages before bowing out of the event.

Baden Cooke showed he was a force to be reckoned with in the green jersey competition with his victory on stage two, while Armstrong's US Postal team were very much the ones to beat after winning the team time trial.

But when the second week got going and the race moved into the mountains, the until-now predictable script was completely rewritten.

On stages seven, eight and nine, Armstrong was attacked again and again, as Beloki, Ullrich, Hamilton, Vinokourov and Iban Mayo all chanced their arm.

The Texan, though, did just enough to hold onto the overall race lead.

His cause was helped on stage nine when then chief rival Beloki crashed on a treacherous descent. That ended the Spaniard's Tour bid in dramatic fashion - he suffered multiple fractures in the fall - and almost brought down Armstrong and cost him a fifth Tour victory.

Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo fall on stage 15
Armstrong recovered despite a bad fall on stage 15

With the Alps over, a few flat stages handed Armstrong some respite and time to prepare for the Pyrenees.

There, if anything, he was given an even tougher time.

Ullrich massively declared his intentions on the climb to Cap Decouverte as he completely left Armstrong for dead, winning the 12th stage by more than a minute-and-a-half.

A day later he once more broke in the latter stages to knock a further seven seconds off Armstrong's time.

With the global press arguing that Armstrong was in grave danger of losing, he hit back with an exceptionally brave ride from Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz Ardiden in which he crossed the line 40 seconds ahead of Ullrich.

It was all the more impressive considering the Texan had clipped a spectator and fallen on the final ascent.

However the bravest ride was undoubtedly that of Tyler Hamilton - the star of last year's race - en route to victory on stage 16.

The American rider had been caught in a horror crash on stage one and announced his retirement from the race because of a broken collarbone.

He overturned that decision and remarkably rode to fourth overall in the general classification - stunning his critics with attack after attack on some of the toughest ascents.

With the Pyrenees now over, however, Armstrong looked on course for victory, the final time trial permitting. He edged his rival in that and subsequently maintained his one-minute lead.

The race, though, was not over and the green jersey competition was still very much up for grabs between Robbie McEwen and Cooke.

Cooke literally forced his way to the ultimate sprinters' prize, shouldering McEwen on his way to crossing the line in front.

In the end, Armstrong stood at the top of the winner's podium, with Ullrich and Vinokourov either side and Richard Virenque the proud recipient of a record sixth King of the Mountains jersey.

Only time will tell if win number six will come Armstrong's way in 2004.



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