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Armstrong Critical of Tour de Lance

October 26, 2003|From Associated Press

PARIS — Lance Armstrong admits he's made one huge mistake in his illustrious career -- taking this year's Tour de France for granted.

Although he won the 2003 Tour, the Texan was pushed to near breaking point. As he prepares for his bid to win a record six Tours, he says he'll never underestimate the punishing 100-year-old race again.

"I was angry with my performance," Armstrong told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I had never been on the limit like that and quite frankly it was an experience I would not like to repeat. I took the race for granted."

Armstrong's problems started before the Tour, with stomach flu that nearly stopped him from making the flight to France.

He crashed twice in the race, struggled in the Alps, lost 11 pounds through dehydration, swerved across a bumpy field to avoid a fallen rider, suffered foot cramps, technical difficulties and moments of self-doubt.

But he hung on, recovering to withstand and beat German Jan Ullrich by just 61 seconds -- by far the shortest margin of Armstrong's five wins.

"It was too close, too difficult, too stressful, too emotional," Armstrong recalled Thursday, after attending the presentation of the 2004 Tour route. "We were all worried every night that the Tour would be lost."

Tour Director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the 2,101-mile counterclockwise trek around France July 3-25 would feature the first ever time trial on the notorious L'Alpe d'Huez mountain -- a climb Armstrong won in 2001.

As is typical of Armstrong, who recovered from cancer to win his first Tour in 1999, he can find a positive side of this year's brush with defeat.

"I dodged a bullet and still won," he said. "But I gained the perspective that it can all be gone in an instant. I'm cautiously confident now."

Armstrong's strength is as much cerebral as physical. He admits his 32-year-old body is not as resistant as it was -- or as strong as 29-year-old Ullrich's.

"I have to face the realization that I'm not the same rider I was three years ago. I know that after the close call I have to be prepared to lose," he said. "But at the same time I'm more motivated than I've ever been."

He needs to be.

Besides Ullrich, Kazhakstan's Alexander Vinokourov -- third this year -- Italy's Ivan Basso and Spain's Joseba Beloki could all pose threats.

Ullrich came into the 2003 Tour after two knee operations, a ban for using recreational drugs, and the collapse of his Team Coast -- and still pushed Armstrong all the way.

Ullrich, who recently switched from Team Bianchi to the T-Mobile team (formerly Team Telekom), told French sports daily L'Equipe that he is "fearless" going into 2004.

"Jan will be super strong next year," Armstrong said. "He is going into his prime whereas I'm probably at half my prime."

But his love of cycling burns bright.

"I'm still the kid on the bike," he said. "I'm still passionate about the training and the races. All that kind of stuff makes me excited and happy."

Only this year did French fans truly start warming to Armstrong. Victory in 2004 will set him apart from Spain's Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tours between 1991-1995. But will Armstrong retire if he wins six?

"That's my secret. I'm not telling," he said with a mischievous laugh. "We'll see in Paris what happens. But I have a hard time imagining I'll be a retired athlete in just a few months."

Armstrong's contract with his U.S. Postal Service team expires next year. Would he race for another team?

"I hope not, but you can never say never," he said.

Postal welcomed Armstrong after his recovery from cancer. Other teams backed away. His allegiance to Postal manager Johan Bruyneel is "100 percent," he said. "Quite frankly, he's the best, smartest, the most organized and the straightest."

Armstrong said he will start "training for real" in December, in Austin, Texas, then rejoin his Postal colleagues at team camp in January. He may skip the Dauphine Libere race next June, a Tour warm-up he won this year.

"I'm a little superstitious about the Dauphine," he said. "Indurain rode a fantastic Dauphine race there in 1996 and then lost the Tour to Bjarne Riis."

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