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Overcoming crashes, illness, hard-charging rivals and plain old bad luck, the Texan won his hardest but sweetest Tour on Sunday -- a record-tying fifth straight that places him among the greatest cyclists ever.
Unlike previous years, when he won by comfortable margins, the grueling 23-day, 2,125-mile clockwise trek around France pushed Armstrong to the limit.
"Before the Tour started I was very confident about winning. But before next year's Tour, I won't be so confident,'' he said.
Armstrong joined Spaniard Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win cycling's most brutal and prestigious race five times consecutively -- a record Armstrong plans to break in 2004.
King de Lance
A look at Lance Armstrong's Tour de France career:
TOUR VICTORIES: Five straight from 1999-03, tying the record for consecutive wins set by Miguel Indurain of Spain (1991-95). Three others won five Tours, but not in a row -- Jacques Anquetil of France (1957, 1961-64), Eddy Merckx of Belgium (1969-72, 1974), and Bernard Hinault of France (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985).
STAGE VICTORIES: 16 -- one each in 1993, 1995, 2000, 2003; four each in 1999, 2001, 2002. His U.S. Postal Service team also won a time trial together this year. Merckx won a record 34 stages, Hinault 28, Anquetil 16, and Indurain 12.
WINNING MARGINS: Beat Alex Zulle of Switzerland by 7 minutes, 37 seconds in 1999, Jan Ullrich of Germany by 6:02 in 2000, Ullrich by 6:44 in 2001, Joseba Beloki of Spain by 7:17 in 2002, and Ullrich by 1:01 this year. The largest gap between the winner and runner-up in race history is nearly 3 hours -- 2:59:21 to be exact -- set by Maurice Garin of France in the first Tour in 1903. The smallest margin is 8 seconds, in Greg LeMond's victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989.
AGE: 31; Armstrong will turn 32 in September and plans to compete in the 2004 Tour. Since 1953, seven riders 31 or older have won. The oldest was Firmin Lambot of Belgium, 36 in 1922. Of the other five-time champions, only Indurain won at 31 -- and that was the Spaniard's age for his final victory.
ENTRIES: This was Armstrong's ninth Tour de France. Joop Zoetemelk of the Netherlands raced in the most, 16.
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PLACINGS: 1993-Did Not Finish; 1994-Did Not Finish; 1995-36th; 1996-Did Not Finish; 1997-Did Not Enter; 1998-Did Not Enter; 1999-1st; 2000-1st; 2001-1st; 2002-1st; 2003-1st.
-- The Associated Press
"It's a dream, really a dream,'' Armstrong said in French after climbing the podium while "The Star-Spangled Banner'' rang out.
"I love cycling, I love my job and I will be back for a sixth. It's incredible to win again.''
So action-packed was this Tour that Armstrong was prepared for the unexpected -- even Sunday, on the largely processional final stage.
"If a plane landed in the race I wouldn't be surprised,'' he said before setting off from the Paris suburb of Ville d'Avray on the 92.4-mile ride through streets packed with cheering spectators, many waving American flags.
Armstrong shared the podium with five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich and third-place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov, holding their hands above his head in a fitting tribute to the two men who battled him to the end.
Armstrong's fierce duel with Ullrich made this centennial Tour the most gripping in years, drawing millions of fans who thronged winding mountain climbs and adorned villages along the route with banners for the riders. "Lance is God,'' said one sign in the Pyrenees.
Armstrong's 61-second victory hardly resembled the previous four Tours, when he demoralized rivals by dominating in lung-burning mountain ascents and super-speedy time trials.
He had never before won by less than 6 minutes -- even in 1999, three years after surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. Still, his average speed over three weeks (25.38 mph) broke his own record as the fastest in Tour history.
Once given only a 50 percent chance of surviving cancer, Armstrong's triumphs with the U.S. Postal Service team have proved an inspiration, drawing new fans to cycling.
"I saw his face. He'll go for a sixth and he'll get it,'' said Jared Gordon of Bangor, Maine, on the crowd-packed Champs-Elys Dees to see Armstrong win.
President Bush called Armstrong to congratulate him shortly after his victory, as did Postmaster General John Potter.
Armstrong's family jubilantly greeted him at the finish: wife Kristin, his 3-year-old son Luke, and twin girls Isabelle and Grace, who will be 2 in November.
Ullrich, coming back from two knee operations and a ban for using recreational drugs, didn't think he would contend this year.
"I delivered one of my best races ever. This time I was very close to Armstrong,'' the German said. "The next time ... I will be even better prepared.''
A perfectionist who focuses on the Tour more than all other races, Armstrong also will be motivated to win in 2004.
"The other years I won by 6, 7 minutes. I think it makes it more exciting and sets up an attempt for number six,'' he said.
The outcome of the race wasn't decided until the rain-soaked time trial Saturday, when Armstrong managed to stay upright on a slippery road while Ullrich skidded.
It seemed an appropriate way to determine the winner of a race marked by crashes and other mishaps. On one day, Armstrong and other leaders were temporarily blocked by protesters; on another he had to veer through a field to avoid a fallen rider.
Armstrong fought through stomach flu before the July 5 start and was bruised in an enormous pileup on the second day.
Besides Armstrong and Indurain, just three other riders have won the Tour five times, but not consecutively. They are Belgium's Eddy Merckx, and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. If Armstrong doesn't win a sixth title, the question of who is the best will long be debated.