VAISON-LA-ROMAINE, France, July 22 (AFP) Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx, who claimed five Tour de France and Tour of Italy titles, admitted Monday that he never thought Lance Armstrong could one day win the Tour de France.
Merckx, who now works a radio consultant and has his own model of racing bike which Armstrong once used became friends with the 30-year-old American just before he was struck down by testicular cancer in 1997.
Since then, the two men have grown closer, and Merckx now believes the US Postal team leader, currently heading for a fourth consecutive Tour triumph, can win as many editions of the world's top bike race as he cares for.
But the man formerly known as "the Cannibal" for his voracious appetite for victory said he never saw Armstrong recovering enough to win the Tour.
"I'm not afraid to say it, but back then, and seeing his state of health, I never thought he would one day win the Tour.
"Before his illness, Lance was talented, he'd won the world championship at the age of 21, but as a climber he struggled," Merckx told French sports daily L'Equipe.
Armstrong's story of recovery from testicular cancer is known by millions. But in the cycling milieu, it is generally believed that, although a talented rider, the period after his successful recovery from his serious condition was crucial.
After losing all his hair, and lots of weight due to ultimately successful chemotherapy treatment, he was, basically, physically reconstructed.
A chunky 21-year-old Armstrong, who won a world championship gold in Oslo in 1993 and was one of the best young riders to come out of the United States since three-time Tour winner Greg Lemond, had changed drastically.
Merckx believes that the illness proved crucial to his success.
"Then he lost about five kilos due to his cancer. It was down to his illness that he turned into a great climber," Merckx said. "Cancer made him much stronger physically, and, more importantly, stronger mentally. He saw death staring him right in the face.
"I went to Texas to see Lance. He went out on his bike for the first time since his illness, and I was there with him. His head was shaved, and he had two big scars at the back of his neck. It was only three weeks after his operation, and you could see he was still exhausted, but he wanted so much to get back on his bike."
Merckx, unlike Armstrong, was a more complete rider, winning many of the one-day classics Liege-Bastogne-Liege (five), the Milan-San Remo (seven), Paris-Roubaix (three), Ghent-Wevelgem (three), Amstel Gold (two) and the Fleche Wallonne (three) among others.
However, he refuses to compare his success with that of Armstrong.
Cycling has changed, he says. And he admits that, with hindsight, he perhaps shouldn't have been so greedy.
"You can't compare our success," Merckx said. "I rode the Tour with a 10-speed bike and today a pair of wheels weighs a kilo less than in my time. In general, the material is much more sophisticated.
"Armstrong is the champion of a new era, which is more professional. I, for example, raced 150 days of the year. Armstrong focuses on the Tour and arrived this year with only 21 days of racing in his legs.
"I couldn't even imagine missing a one-day classic.
"Lance is going to last a very long time. He doesn't need to do all the races I did. I worked myself to the bone.
"Now, looking back, I realize I was made to do so."