PARIS: Sipping champagne to celebrate his victory, Lance Armstrong won his hardest but sweetest Tour de France title yesterday – a record-tying fifth straight win that places him alongside the greatest cyclists in the sport.
The 31-year-old cancer survivor and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are now the only two riders to win the sport's most gruelling and prestigious race five times straight – a record Armstrong plans to break next year.
Savouring his feat on a largely processional final stage past distinguished Paris landmarks, Armstrong sipped from a flute of champagne and toasted his achievement with a “cheers!” as he rode, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey that he had so ardently coveted.
“It's incredible to win again,” the Texan said.
The indefatigable Armstrong overcame illness, crashes, dehydration, team and equipment problems and uncharacteristic bad days during the 23-day, 3,427.5km clockwise slog around France to win by his smallest-ever margin – just 61 seconds over five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany.
Armstrong, who had never before won by less than six minutes, said his fifth title was “definitely the hardest” but “feels better” than the previous four, when he demoralised rivals by dominating in lung-burning mountain ascents and super-speedy time trials.
A staunch perfectionist, Armstrong said the closeness of the victory was already motivating him to come roaring back in 2004.
“The other years I won by six, seven minutes.
“I think it makes it more exciting and sets up an attempt for number six,” he said.
“Before the Tour started I was very confident about winning. But before next year's Tour, I won't be so confident.”
The intense rivalry between Armstrong and Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, turned 'Le Tour' into a gripping festival of cycling after four years when Armstrong was so strong that he was all but assured of victory days before the finish on the Champs-Elysees.
But this year, the Texan only sewed up his win in a rain-soaked time trial on Saturday, the penultimate day, when he managed to stay upright on the slippery road while Ullrich skidded and crashed, ending a squarely fought duel to erase Armstrong's slim lead.
So action-packed was this Tour that Armstrong was prepared even yesterday, on the largely processional final stage, for the unexpected.
“If a plane landed in the race I wouldn't be surprised,” he said before setting off from the Paris suburb of Ville d'Avray on the 152km ride through streets packed with cheering spectators.
Aside from Armstrong and Indurain, just three other riders have won the Tour five times, but not consecutively. They are Belgium's Eddy Merckx, and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.
If Armstrong does not win a record sixth title, the question of who is the best will long be debated. – AP