Tour de France: Armstrong leaves lasting memory

American closes in on historic sixth win with the gap between him and the rest wider than ever
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The Independent Online

For all Lance Armstrong's girlfriend Sheryl Crow has had a hit with Every Day Is A Winding Road, in the Texan's case at least the tarmac is now leading straight and fast towards a sixth, record-breaking win in Paris.

After a week in yellow, four stage wins and total control of the race, journalists have already run out of adjectives to describe this - remarkable? prodigious? awe-inspiring? take your pick - achievement. However, probably the best adjective for summing up how Armstrong forged his niche in sporting history in three weeks of July 2004 is "uncomplicated".

Because of all his Tours since 1999, Armstrong has dominated this one the most, despite age creeping up at 32 and, presumably, also getting weary of living the monk-like existence of top cyclists. This July, there has been no call for amazing displays of cycling power by "Big Tex" like that on Alpe d'Huez in 2001 or at Sestrieres in 1999 to seal his sixth; rather, Armstrong has continued simply to maintain a level line at the head of the game while his rivals have collapsed around him.

Such was the case of climber Iban Mayo, steamrollering the opposition, including Armstrong, in June, but forced to abandon, injured and demoralised, in the Tour after losing 37 minutes in one mountain stage alone.

Or Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong's former team-mate, who had enough inside infor-mation to follow Armstrong's pre-Tour training and race programme - but who crashed out injured after just one day in the Pyrenees.

Or Jan Ullrich, boasting in January he would "kick Armstrong's arse in July", but who lost five minutes in two days, and all chance of a second Tour. The reason? According to his team director, Walter Godefroot, "he's too easily influenced" to not train.

As for Armstrong, the US Postal-Berry Floor leader hit the ground running in Liège three weeks ago by finishing second in the prologue. The Texan followed that up with a superb display of teamwork on the lethal cobbles at Roubaix and in the time trial at Cambrai, which his squad won comfortably.

Having worn the yellow for one day before passing it on to Frenchman Thomas Voeckler to ease the pressure, come the Pyrenees Armstrong began the assault on the race lead in earnest.

There was no competition: in 24 hours, he had just one rival, the young Italian Ivan Basso, within the two-minute margin, and had slashed Voeckler's lead from 9min 35sec to a mere 22sec, all without a single all-out attack from the Texan.

Boring? Perhaps, but extremely effective nonetheless, given that after the first day in the Alps, with Voeckler exhausted, the yellow jersey was snugly back on Armstrong's shoulders.

His rivals scattered, in the third week Armstrong took a further hat-trick of mountain stages, including the most prestigious of all, the Alpe D'Huez time-trial. But by then, his victories no longer really mattered; all that counted was staying upright to Paris.

Armstrong was far ahead of the game even before the Tour's crunch moments arrived. The story began in a minor stage-race in Portugal in February, the Tour of the Algarve, where the Texan showed he had not spent the winter eating doughnuts and watching baseball games. Instead, the American blitzed the opposition in the time trial there, and then went from strength to strength, winning races such as the Tour of Georgia in April, but never digging too deep into his reserves prior to July.

The consequences have been monotonously straightforward: despite crashing twice in the first week, unlike in 2003, where Armstrong paid a high price for being too confident and was only really sure of victory after the last time-trial, 2004 has been his straightest run to victory ever.

The question of what his true rank is among the gods of cycling actually remains open to debate: defenders of Eddy Merckx will point out that the Belgian won one race out of every three he took part in, as well as events such as the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta España, while Armstrong has concentrated only on Le Tour.

"I could have won seven or eight Tours had I just focused on July," said Merckx, one of four former riders - the others are Miguel Indurain, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault - to take five Tours.

The question of what the man who is about to achieve the hitherto inconceivable in cycling - six Tours - will do now is equally up in the air.

Reports in the New York Times that he would concentrate on the Giro and Vuelta in 2005 have been denied by Armstrong himself, with the most likely option a seventh Tour bid next July, to put the record out of reach for others.

Tour de Lance: the milestones

1999: Armstrong returns to Tour 21 months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He wins first-day time trial, and wins Tour by 7min 37sec from Swiss Alex Zulle.

2000: Trailing overall by nearly six minutes, Armstrong destroys rivals on Stage 10 in the Alps, claiming yellow jersey. He takes Tour by 6:02 from Jan Ullrich of Germany.

2001: Four stage wins - two time-trials, two mountaintop triumphs - confirm Armstrong's dominance as he stares down opposition. Ullrich, second again, loses by 6:44.

2002: Excellent teamwork by USPS team in Pyrenees and four more stage wins propel Armstrong to win No 4, by 7:17 over Joseba Beloki of Spain, third the previous two years.

2003: Crashes and crowd protests can't prevent Armstrong from equalling Miguel Indurain's record of five back-to-back wins, but this time it is by only 61 seconds from Ullrich.

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