Armstrong focuses on victory but has eye on history

Lance Armstrong  Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
Lance Armstrong is upset about Funny Cide.

He does not normally follow horse racing, but he became a big fan of Funny Cide after spurious charges were raised against its jockey, Jose Santos, after the Kentucky Derby.

"I've been through some stuff like that myself," Armstrong said, referring to the allegations in France that he must have used drugs to win his first Tour de France after his desperate battle with cancer.

From afar, Armstrong bonded with Funny Cide, who finished third in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Here, deep in the Alps, or anywhere on the cycling circuit, Armstrong is wired. He keeps up. Funny Cide did not win the Triple Crown of American horse racing.

Now Armstrong is facing his own version of history. He will begin the Tour de France in less than four weeks, trying to win his fifth consecutive title, which only Miguel Indurain has done.

Armstrong is taking on 100 years of history of the Tour de France, but he cannot begin the day by staring up at some vicious mountain and thinking of the four legendary cyclists who won the Tour de France five times each. The athlete focuses on the event itself, Armstrong insisted Sunday.

"For me," he said, "it's the 2003 Tour de France."

He was visiting this modest and beautiful resort town for the brief 5.1-kilometer (3.1-mile) prologue of the Dauphine Libere, an eight-day race through the Alps, which cycling teams use as spring training for the main event.

Armstrong is just easing into his Tour schedule and did not even think of doing well as he warmed up, but then his considerable life force kicked in and he finished a surprising third.

[Note: Three days later, Armstrong won the stage 3 time trial of the Dauphine Libere, to move into first on the general classification. He kept the yellow jersey despite a crash, and went on to win the race.]

A short effort like isn't easy, Armstrong said in a private interview after a late dinner, sitting around a charming little hotel facing the craggy mountains. He said he was tired, but he chatted easily, and intelligently, on a variety of subjects.

He has put on a lot of miles, not even counting the cancer and the chemotherapy and the rebuilding of his ravaged body. Now he is 31 years old.

"I definitely feel it," he said, "starting with my feet hitting the ground in the morning. I don't get to the coffee pot quite as fast as I used to. I feel it in the lower back when my kids jump on me."

His training machines indicate that he still pedals with the same fury he had five or 10 years ago, but he may depend more on wisdom now.

"There may come a day when I run into a young guy with acceleration and strength, and he's probably going to take it," said Armstrong, who is not given to morbidity.

Armstrong is going through the same process that superstars like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova and now Roger Clemens have done as they chased the next milestone. Cycling seems even more excruciatingly personal than all the other sports, what with people standing inches away and witnessing a man gritting his way up the mountain.

He is chasing Indurain of Spain, Eddy Merckx of Belgium and two Frenchmen, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, who all won it five times. Somewhat unbelievably, no Frenchman has won the Tour since Hinault in 1985.

In this year of years, Armstrong rides for a team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, which deploys two red-white-and-blue support vans all over France, the profound heart of cycling. Only a few months ago, these two nations begged to differ about the conflict in Iraq. On Sunday at a news conference, a journalist asked Armstrong if he was afraid of riding around France, given the political climate.

"This was much more of a concern six or eight weeks ago, before and during the conflict," Armstrong said with an expressive smile and a shrug. "I haven't thought that much about it since, and I haven't heard much about Bush or the war or the conflict.

"But the Tour has 1 million people a day," he said. "It only takes one. I have to keep that in mind, but I always try not to mix cycling and politics, and I hope people along the way feel the same."

Armstrong added that since coming to train here in May, he had found people to be kind and friendly, stopping their cars and cheering when they discovered him training on their hillsides.

"When you're riding in a race, you can hear things and you can see faces," he said. "Today, I did not hear anything bad. Not one thing. And I would hear it."

He does notice things, including recent comments by an Italian racer, Gilberto Simoni, that Armstrong does not compete often enough.

"It's always nice to have some extra motivation," Armstrong said Sunday. "There's the TV and the Internet. I'm always watching."

He knows that millions of people noticed last winter when he and his wife, Kristin, announced their separation, followed by a reconciliation. A team official said Kristin Armstrong and their three children were at the family's second home in Gerona, Spain.

When asked if he was anxious about winning on this anniversary, he said, "I'm sure that one day when I'm speaking to my grandchildren, if I am fortunate enough to win this, I won't say, 'I won the 100th Tour de France.'"

Lance Armstrong is starting to think about grandchildren. That form of history seems to matter a great deal to him.


The 2003 Tour rolls through France from July 5 - 27. Check back here at Active for great Tour coverage each day!


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