Tour de France: Armstrong seals ultimate triumph

American provides powerful example for cancer sufferers and restores stature of tainted event

IT WAS the stuff of movies, but as Lance Armstrong said: "It's not Hollywood. It's a true story." The American was trying to bring perspective to his achievement in winning the Tour de France three years after facing death from cancer.

As he stood on the podium on the Champs-Elysees, the yellow jersey of Tour winner on his shoulders, the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" filling the air, he was viewed by many as the saviour of an event haunted by last year's doping scandal.

"If I had to put money on the `cleanest' Tour winner, it would go on Armstrong," one former Tour rider said, but even the American had to contend with accusations that his achievement was somehow tainted.

"I am absolutely happy to win because of the speculation and innuendo," he said, referring essentially to Le Monde newspaper's ill-founded allegations about his use of forbidden corticoids.

He heads for New York on Wednesday to sign a book deal, talk over plans for a documentary film, discuss a couple of endorsement deals, star in a few talk-shows, and rake in a million dollars or so. It is, however, time to roll the credits on a story that touched on triumph, emotion, rejection, courage, and one man's refusal to cave in to anything that life tossed his way.

It opened in Oslo on a rainy day six years ago when a 21-year-old Texan insisted that his mum, Linda, came too when, as the new world champion, he was presented to the King of Norway.

To American cycling he was the new era after Greg LeMond had given them glory in the toughest cycling arena with three Tour wins and world titles. Then late in 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed as having testicular cancer. It proved to be not the end, but the beginning of an inspirational struggle to be the best again, and help other cancer sufferers with his own cancer research foundation.

"I was prepared to forget the sport. There was a very real possibility that I would have to forget a lot of things. I just wanted to keep living. It was scary," Armstrong said. "Now my victory is going to give inspiration to those who never had it. The disease was a good thing for me. I would not change anything. I came back with a new perspective. I am hungry now on the bike."

LeMond, too, had to fight back after being shot in a hunting accident, but he said: "I never regained the same potential or the same health. I am still bitter about it, but Lance `in yellow' is perfect."

The toughest thing for Armstrong was reviving faith in his ability. "When I wanted to find a team no one took me because it was not possible. No one rang me back. No one believed in me."

Then US Postal had faith, and yesterday on the Champs-Elysees they got their reward. His contract, renewed for two years last week, is still packed with performance clauses, which work both ways. "Johan Bruyneel was the first man to believe in me. When he got the job of team manager with US Postal he sent me an e-mail, saying: `I look forward to being with you when you wear the jersey in Paris'.

"His direction, focus, and passion made me decide to race the Tour," said Armstrong, who believed that he was only a single-day racing specialist. "I have worked hard and passionately, and sacrificed everything for this race."

Bruyneel, Armstrong's rival on a bike last year, said Armstrong was unique. "He is not like any of the great champions I have known. The difference is his mental strength and extraordinary determination."

Armstrong so inspired Jose Maria Jiminez in last year's Vuelta a Espana that the Spanish rider offered him the chance to win a stage. "I would have liked him to win because of his great merit in fighting cancer. It would have been beautiful," Jiminiz said. But Armstrong recalled: "I could not do it. I was empty."

Armstrong had already had a brush with tragedy in 1995 when his team- mate, Fabio Casartelli, died from injuries suffered in a crash, and two days later as Armstrong crossed the line first in Limoges, he pointed to the sky. "I did it for Fabio, his family, his friends, and the Italian people. I will never feel those emotions again," he said.

He will experience a new emotion in Octobert. His wife, Kristin, is expecting their first child. Others had their moments of triumph in this Tour which was the first to exceed an average speed of 40 kph [25mph] in covering 3,686km (2,290 miles).

Switzerland's Alex Zulle, beaten by 7min 37sec, said: "I rode all out and took all kinds of risks throughout the three weeks but I could not beat Armstrong."

The Australian Robbie McEwen won the final stage on the Champs-Elysees ahead of Germany's Erik Zabel, who equalled Sean Kelly's record of four green-jerseys, the colours awarded for consistency in finishing.

The last overall victory for France is in the dim and distant past: 1985 to be exact, and this Tour was even more forgettable. For the first time in 73 years the hosts did not win a stage, and Jacky Durand was the fifth consecutive Frenchman to take the "lanterne rouge" for the last man overall.

Their sole triumph was in the mountains department with Richard Virenque winning his fifth polka-dotted jersey in six years. Yet he was the man the organisers did not want in the race because of his association with the doping scandal which still rumbles on.

TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

(after 20 stages totalling 3,686.8km-2,290 miles)

1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal

91hr 32min 16sec

2 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto at 7min 37sec

3 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +10:26

4 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco +14:43

5 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +15:11

6 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +16:47

7 D Nardello (It) Mapei +17:02

8 R Virenque (Fr) Polti +17:28

9 W Belli (It) Festina +17:37

10 A Peron (It) ONCE +23:10

11 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +23:32; 12 D Etxebarria (Sp) Kelme +26:41; 13 T Hamilton (US) US Postal +26:59; 14 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +27:58; 15 Roland Meier (Swit) Cofidis +28:44; 16 B Salmon (Fr) Casino +28:59; 17 A Elli (It) Telekom +33:39; 18 P Lanfranchi (It) Mapei +34:14; 19 C Contreras (Col) Kelme +34:33; 20 G Totschnig (Aut) Telekom +37:10. Selected: 56 Boogerd +1hr 42min 32sec; 119 Boardman +2.47:48.

20TH AND FINAL STAGE (143.5km, Arpajon to Paris): 1 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 3hr 37min 39sec; 2 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 3 S Martinello (It) Polti; 4 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 5 C da Cruz (Fr) Big Mat; 6 L Michaelsen (Den) La Francaise de Jeux; 7 S Commesso (It) Saeco; 8 T Steels (Bel) Mapei; 9 S Wesemann (Ger) Telekom; 10 G Mondini (It) Cantina Tollo; 11 H Vogels (Aus) Credit Agricole; 12 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 13 J Durand (Fr) Lotto; 14 M Piccoli (It) Lampre; 15 P Chanteur (Fr) Casino; 16 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 17 L Mazzanti (It) Cantina Tollo; 18 D Konyshev (Rus) Mercatone Uno; 19 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 20 L Auger (Fr) Big Mat. Selected: 38 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank; 49 A Olano (Sp) ONCE; 55 R Virenque (Fr) Polti, all same time.

19TH STAGE (57km time trial, Futuroscope): 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 1hr 8min 17sec; 2 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto +9sec; 3 T Hamilton (US) US Postal +1:35; 4 A Casero (Sp) Vitali Seguros +1:37; 5 R Verbrugghe (Bel) Lotto +2:03; 6 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +2:18; 7 W Belli (It) Festina +2:23; 8 A Gonzalez Galdeano (Sp) Vitali +2:28; 9 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole +2:45; 10 S O'Grady (Aus) CA +2:47; 11 A Peron (It) ONCE +2:53; 12 S Gonzalez (Sp) ONCE +3:04; 13 G Maignan (Fr) Casino +3:04; 14 L Brochard (Fr) Festina +3:04; 15 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole +3:29; 16 C Vandevelde (US) US Postal +3:41; 17 D Nardello (It) Mapei +3:43; 18 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise De Jeux +3:51; 19 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank +3:52; 20 F Jeker (Swit) Festina +3:55.

WINNERS ON THE ROAD TO PARIS

Date Stage Stage winner Race leader

3 July Prologue Lance Armstrong (US) Armstrong

4 July 1st Jaan Kirsipuu (Est) Armstrong

5 July 2nd Tom Steels (Bel) Kirsipuu

6 July 3rd Steels Kirsipuu

7 July 4th Mario Cipollini (It) Kirsipuu

8 July 5th Cipollini Kirsipuu

9 July 6th Cipollini Kirsipuu

10 July 7th Cipollini Kirsipuu

11 July 8th Armstrong Armstrong

13 July 9th Armstrong Armstrong

14 July 10th Giuseppe Guerini (It) Armstrong

15 July 11th Ludo Dierckxsens (Bel) Armstrong

16 July 12th David Etxebarria (Sp) Armstrong

17 July 13th Salvatore Commesso (It) Armstrong

18 July 14th Dimitri Konyshev (Rus) Armstrong

20 July 15th Fernando Escartin (Sp) Armstrong

21 July 16th Etxebarria Armstrong

22 July 17th Steels Armstrong

23 July 18th Gianpaolo Mondini (It) Armstrong

24 July 19th Armstrong Armstrong

25 July 20th Robbie McEwan (Aus) Armstrong

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