Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Fear fueled Armstrong, who looks toward 2004



The Associated Press

PARIS - Lance Armstrong was worried he might not win the Tour de France this year.

Concerned about his dwindling lead, he even had a hard time looking teammates in the eyes when they ate together.

"I was very scared," Armstrong said in an interview on NBC's Today Monday, a day after his record-tying fifth straight victory in cycling's most prestigious race.

He overcame crashes, illnesses, hard-charging rivals and some bad luck to sip champagne in the saddle Sunday as he coasted to the Champs Elysees in Paris in the final stage.

But it was close. For Armstrong, used to winning the Tour by comfortable margins, his 61-second victory over Jan Ullrich just wasn't good enough.

"I love cycling, I love my job and I will be back," Armstrong said. "In many ways, I'm coming back to hopefully return to a level that I had for the first four, because this year was not acceptable."

Each of his first four victories was by at least 6 minutes. But even after he took the overall lead for good with two weeks left, Armstrong didn't seal this title until the next-to-last day.

There was a series of problems. He had a stomach flu that was so bad before the Tour he nearly didn't make the flight to France. He was bruised in a crash on the second day. He lost 11 pounds through dehydration during a time trial in a heat wave and struggled up the Tour's most daunting climb, the 8,728 1/2-foot Col du Galibier, with a faulty back brake rubbing against the wheel.

"It takes a little bit out of you with the brake on," Armstrong said. "Those sort of problems just kept happening."

His rivals took notice, sensing that Armstrong was ready to fall.

The turning point came last Monday on a mist-shrouded 8.3-mile ascent to the Pyrenean ski station of Luz-Ardiden, one of the Tour's hardest climbs. Typically for this drama-packed Tour, Armstrong fell when a spectator's outstretched bag hooked his handlebars. But he got back up and rode past Ullrich, who, in a gesture of sportsmanship, waited for Armstrong to get back on his bike.

"I got up and my first thought was, oh no, I lost the Tour de France," Armstrong said.

Ullrich came into the Tour from two knee operations, a ban for using recreational drugs, and the collapse of his Team Coast. He's already thinking about next year.

"I delivered one of my best races ever," Ullrich said. "This time, I was very close to Armstrong."




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