Cycling: Armstrong settles into his seat in history

Centenary Tour de France: Four wins have already booked cancer victim his place in the pantheon. Now for No 5
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The Independent Online

Strange as it may seem, one of the most memorable moments in Lance Armstrong's last warm-up race for the Tour de France - and arguably in his entire five-year reign as cycling's No 1 rider - did not happen on the bike at all.

On a boiling afternoon in Chambéry, having finished a tough stage of the Dauphiné Libéré through the lower Alps with a two-centimetre hole in his elbow courtesy of an 80kmh crash, Armstrong plonked himself down on a white plastic seat behind the podium and talked. And talked. And talked.

The Texan railed against the French rider, Patrice Halgand, who had gone on the attack while he was still lying on the ground - "that fucking guy rides like an amateur" was the politest comment. He said he felt "uncomfortable on the bike" - as anybody would after riding for four hours in 30C with blood seeping through bandages on his arm and legs. And he lambasted Raimondas Rumsas, third in last year's Tour, for a recent positive dope test and "taking risks that deserve to be punished with life suspensions".

All the while his agent, Bill Stapleton, had his hand fluttering nervously on Armstrong's shoulder. Because Stapleton was well aware that unmanaged and impromptu press conferences are totally out of the ordinary for the four-times Tour winner. In fact as the years have rolled past since Armstrong began winning the Tour in 1999, less and less has he appeared to be within the realms of the mortal, instead cultivating an image of the untouchable, invulnerable god of his sport.

Suddenly, at Chambéry, Armstrong was once again the man who had fallen to earth - or rather tarmac. He was injured, and had crashed in a race for the first time he could remember (in fact it was eight years). He was talking to journalists freely, just as the other professional riders tend to do. Once again, if only briefly, he was one of us.

Sadly, the chat will be the exception rather than the rule. Because just as Armstrong believes passionately in leaving nothing to chance - one of the keys to his four-year domination of the Tour - he also knows that regardless of what happens this year, his niche in history is already guaranteed. Even in the Tour's centenary edition, he has no real need to state his case or explain himself.

The reason is simple: before the Texan's victory in the 1999 Tour, no other former cancer sufferer with a well-established career as a full-time athlete had ever made such a successful comeback. Armstrong has, winning the sport's blue riband event not once but four times: so convincingly, in fact, that his fight has been more against the history books than a bland and largely unthreatening series of rivals. Should the Texan manage to match the five-in-a-row record of Tour wins of Miguel Indurain over the next month, then the next step will be an unprecedented sixth victory in 2004.

And if he loses? "I'll go away with four Tours, a world championship, a one-day Classic - that's OK." More than acceptable, in fact, considering that five years ago he was given less than a 50 per cent chance of living. Indeed Armstrong will tell you that he is not interested in records, rather in being remembered as the cancer survivor who won the Tour.

But there are other consequences of his spectacular success. These days, for example, from his carefully cropped greying hair down to his made-to-measure riding shoes, Armstrong cheerfully plays out the ultra stage-managed, ultra-slick role of the American sports star. Not everybody finds this appealing.

Furthermore, his comparatively light racing programme and distant attitude to the press is sometimes interpreted as a lack of respect for any cycling event which is not the Tour. "Armstrong has no sense of cycling history," Manolo Saiz, directeur sportif of Joseba Beloki, the runner-up behind Armstrong in the 2002 Tour, once said.

And the American's failure to answer questions after one of his rare miscalculations of strength in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic this April, induced a leading writer in L'Equipe to state: "Armstrong bases his philosophy towards the media on three principles - I have no need to talk to the press, I do not trust the press, and I will only use the press when I need to."

There have been no public objections by his sponsor, US Postal, to Armstrong's single-minded concentration on the Tour; they are well aware it is the only bike race with a real impact in the States, their main market base. Furthermore, they know they are backing the one rider to remain constantly above the rest in the Tour-winning game.

What few questions have been raised over Armstrong's 2003 form have been due to the 80kmh Dauphiné tumble. But in fact he got off relatively lightly - the elbow needed two stitches - although his agent may have needed a tranquiliser or three. And Armstrong still managed to win the race overall, hands-down, for the second year running.

Even Saiz grudgingly concedes: "Armstrong has a 99 per cent chance of winning." Indeed, the most probable outcome of the centenary Tour is history repeating itself for the fourth consecutive year. The chances of another Armstrong press conference à la Chambéry, though, are considerably smaller.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'