Awesome Armstrong looks beyond record sixth Tour triumph

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The Independent Online

A page in sporting history was turned yesterday afternoon when Lance Armstrong crossed the finishing line of the 2004 Tour de France tucked safely and anonymously in the bunch, in 114th place.

But the limelight beckoned, and less than half-an-hour later Armstrong was listening to the "Star Spangled Banner" for a sixth consecutive July afternoon on the Champs Elysées, the sound of the American anthem the final confirmation that his place in the record books was guaranteed.

If his final soundbite to French television came across as a shade smug - "The team, the training, the motivation and the tactics have all been perfect," he said - then given the scale of his achievement, an unprecedented sixth Tour win, he was probably right to be.

What has been Armstrong's smoothest ride to victory concluded with a trouble-free 163km near-promenade to the centre of Paris, which culminated in a second stage win for the young Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen.

Trouble-free, that is, barring four unexpected early attacks by Filippo Simeoni, the rider who has incurred Armstrong's wrath by questioning the American's association with the trainer Michele Ferrari. Simeoni's brief attempt at revolt was quickly smothered by Armstrong's US Postal-Berry Floor squad, who then escorted the race leader safely on to the Champs Elysées.

Armstrong was seemingly undisturbed by the ferocious battle for the final stage win going on just a few metres ahead of him, with the Australian Robbie McEwen finally securing the green points jersey for the second time in four years thanks to a fourth place behind Boonen. In fact the race leader was so relaxed - and his final advantage over the German Andreas Klöden, of over six minutes, so vast - that he even allowed himself the luxury of easing up in the final kilometre.

Armstrong lost 19 seconds to his rivals, but what does it matter? His 2004 Tour victory has put the 32-year-old Texan ahead of the field - permanently.

How does this performance compare to his other Tours?

Only one answer is possible: in 2004 Armstrong has been further ahead than during any previous win. Armstrong believes he has not dominated the race, but the statistics speak for themselves. Five stages won individually is the most he has taken in a single Tour, while his three wins in the Alps is a first since the mighty Italian Gino Bartali in 1948.

Armstrong has also revealed hidden strengths, such as his new-found ability to sprint - and win, twice - in small moves. There was no need for him to use his master-weapon and his foundation stone for the five previous Tour wins, the all-out attack on the last col of the first mountain stage.

As for the opposition, part of it - key contenders Joseba Beloki and Alexandre Vinokourov - were grounded by team spats and accidents before the Tour even took off. The remainder were unable even to keep Armstrong on the radar.

Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich, the two biggest contenders on paper, both lost over 10 seconds to Armstrong in six kilometres of racing in the Liège prologue, and from there on the gap kept widening. Hamilton eventually withdrew with severe back injuries while Ullrich lost over five minutes in the Pyrenees to finish fourth overall. The other leading contender, the Basque Iban Mayo, quit after finishing 37 minutes down in one stage, run off what was theoretically his hunting ground, the mountains.

How long will he go on?

Only five other riders have won the Tour at 32 or older, something Armstrong has now achieved, but despite his age the Texan has refused to say he will not be coming back.

He has always said "the day I don't ride the Tour is the day that I stop riding the bike". Blessed with a hard head for business, he also knows the Tour is crucial for his team's new sponsor, the Discovery Channel, in their prime market, the United States.

His motivation remains undiminished. In fact Armstrong now says he is having "more fun riding the bike than ever before". The only thing that could stop him is his family. His three children live in Texas and he says "there's no way I want to spend so much time away from them again". But no retirement date has been set.

Are there any rising stars to challenge him?

Few. The previously unknown Klöden filled the gap in second place usually filled by his T-Mobile team-mate Ullrich, while the Italian Ivan Basso made third. But at 29 and 26 respectively, neither have the brashness of youth that would render them less likely to be intimidated by Armstrong's reputation.

Klöden's team manager Walter Godefroot has already said that his rider "will have problems handling the media pressure and he's very easily influenced". This is Godefroot's coded way of saying that Klöden is probably too close to Ullrich - who is already known to favour midnight raids on the fridge over winter training.

Basso, two years younger, could be another story: he stuck with Armstrong in the Pyrenees and has a directeur, Bjarne Riis, who has already moulded Hamilton into a Tour contender. Seventh last year, Basso has more margin for improvement in his times than Kloden. But he would not be the first young hopeful to fall foul of Armstrong.

Any other potential problems?

The four attacks by Simeoni on the final stage, all chased down by Armstrong's US Postal squad, neatly summed up one of the Texan's principal flaws: he takes everything to extremes, including personal vendettas.

Armstrong has it in for Simeoni because the Italian is the principal witness in the case against the Texan's controversial co-trainer, Ferrari, who is currently on trial for sporting fraud and who once said, infamously, that "EPO is no more dangerous than orange juice". Behind the Texan's attitude lies his determination to meet all the suspicions of doping - none of them proven - with the diplomacy of a bull in a china-shop. This policy tends to backfire.

Still, Armstrong would probably respond with Machiavelli's old adage: "It is better to be feared than loved." Not to mention more successful than any other bike rider.

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