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King of the Hill On a route that could easily have stymied him, facing rivals who thought him vulnerable, Lance Armstrong became the first American to win the Tour de France four straight times

Somehow, somebody got the idea that Lance Armstrong could be
beaten in the Tour de France this year. The talk started weeks
before the event, indications that Spanish teams, which were
riding well, were seeing cracks in his armor. Armstrong had won
the Dauphine-Libere and the Midi Libre, two tough multiday stage
races before the Tour, but he didn't win their individual time
trials, events that used to be his strength. And didn't he
finish second in the Criterium International last March? Didn't
that show his vulnerability?

Then the Tour de France began, and there came the clearest sign
of his decline: On July 15, in the ninth stage, Armstrong, who in
winning the last three Tours had never lost an extended time
trial, finished second. Said Team ONCE's Igor Gonzalez de
Galdeano, who was wearing the yellow jersey at the time, "The
Tour has changed."

Thirteen days later Armstrong took his accustomed place on the
winner's podium on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He had become
the first American to win the Tour four times and the fourth
rider to win four in a row. By dominating the mountain stages
and winning the second time trial by nearly a minute, he
hammered home the point that the Tour hasn't changed, that he is
still the master of this race. "After the first two mountain
stages people realized Lance was as good as ever," said Team
Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer, an American who finished eighth in
his first Tour.

Despite the Tour's unusual layout this year, which stacked the
five mountain stages at the end, it was perhaps Armstrong's
easiest Tour win, if easy can be applied to a grueling
three-week event that took riders over 2,032 miles of rolling
valleys and vertiginous mountain peaks. With one-time winner and
three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany sidelined with a
knee injury and legendary Italian climber Marco Pantani not
racing because of a drug suspension, Armstrong had only one real
challenger--Spanish climber Joseba Beloki of ONCE, who finished
7:17 behind him.

"Every year the media comes up with something to describe my
race," said the 30-year-old Armstrong, who is a native of Plano,
Texas. "The first year it was 'the comeback.' Then it was the
'the confirmation.' I don't know what it was last year. This
year, for me, it's 'the year of the team.' I can't say how I
compare to the rider I was in 1999 or 2000 or 2001, but this
team is much stronger than it has ever been. It has made it
easier for me."

Armstrong's multinational team of riders surrounded him in the
peloton and provided protection so perfect it came to be known
as the Blue Guard or the Lancemobile. "We put this team together
specifically for this course, and it turned out to be the best
team I have ever seen," said Postal team director Johan
Bruyneel, a 37-year-old former cyclist from Belgium who rode in
seven Tours.

There was little that didn't go Postal's way. The weather was
usually dry, and the heat, at times, was Texas-like. Even
Gonzalez de Galdeano's getting the yellow jersey early "worked
out perfectly for us," said Postal's assistant team director,
Dirk Demol. "We were hoping that a French rider would get
it--it's such a big deal in France that his team would have to
defend it--or a rider from ONCE would get it, because we know
that if [team director] Manolo Saiz's team does well, he wants
more and more and more [and makes his team stay at the front]."

With someone else bearing the burden of the golden fleece as the
Tour rolled through the rolling hills and windswept flats of
northern France, Armstrong settled in near the front of the
peloton, where accidents are less likely to occur. (A near crash
on July 13 cost him 27 seconds.) As expected, the Postal Service
team didn't begin its express delivery until the first mountain
stage, in the Pyrenees on July 18, when Armstrong was 26 seconds
behind Gonzalez de Galdeano. One by one the Posties burned
themselves out and fell away like booster stages on a rocket
launch as they led Armstrong on a chase of 33-year-old Laurent
Jalabert of France on the final climb to La Mongie. The
soon-to-be-retired JaJa had been on a solo break for about 40 km
in pursuit of a stage win when he turned to see Armstrong,
fellow Postie Roberto Heras and ONCE's Beloki charge past with
about two miles remaining. With 200 meters to go, Armstrong
pulled away from the other two to win the stage and the yellow
jersey, which he never relinquished. The next day, when
Armstrong again bolted past Jalabert on a steep climb for his
third of four stage wins, he gave Jalabert what the Frenchman
would recall as a "sad look." Passing the popular Jalabert was
"a shame," Armstrong said later. "He deserves to win."

Not as long as Armstrong is riding. Asked at the end of the
second week whether he thought he was "too much of a force for
the Tour's own good," Armstrong replied, "I don't know. But I
know that I love the race. I love everything that it stands for.
It is what they pay me to do. This is my job. They say, 'Lance,
we want you to win the Tour de France.' That's what the team
wants, what the sponsors want, what cycling fans in America
want, what cancer survivors around the world want."

Armstrong's dominance in the world's toughest cycling event
after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer six years ago has
made him a celebrity. In the U.S., where most of the public
knows and cares little about his sport, he's undeniably famous,
though if the U.S. Postal Service's huge, climate-controlled
team bus rolled down the street in Seattle or New Orleans, most
citizens would assume it was carrying mail, not the world's best
cyclist. In France, however, the bus is a gray-and-blue magnet
to autograph seekers and media hordes from around the world.
Other Tour teams have similar buses, but none of the other teams
set up retractable-tape barriers as soon as they pull into a
stage's departure town. No other team has bouncers. Armstrong
travels the Tour with two bodyguards, at least one of whom is
with him in public at all times.

Few people outside his entourage are allowed on the bus. Friends
like comedian Robin Williams, who pulled up to the bus on a bike
in the southwestern town of Lavelanet before stage 13, or cancer
patients who want a word of encouragement and a photo from their
hero are the main exceptions. "Those are motivating moments for
me," says Armstrong of his visits with cancer patients. "That's
the way I can give back to someone who is in the same position I

Aside from those patients, the people who most appreciate
Armstrong's accomplishments are other elite athletes. On July 10,
the day the Postal Service team finished second in the 68-km team
time trial between Epernay and Chateau-Thierry, Armstrong was up
for the Best Male Athlete award at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. The
honor went to Tiger Woods, but hockey great Wayne Gretzky
couldn't stop talking about Armstrong after the event.

"I follow the Tour de France about as much as the average North
American person," said Gretzky. "I only know of it because of
the success that Lance Armstrong has had. Michael Jordan was the
greatest athlete I ever saw. Tiger Woods is now at a point where
he is going to go down in history as something special. There's
not a question that Lance Armstrong belongs with those two guys.
Not only because of what he has done as an athlete, but also
what he has been able to come back from."

Armstrong draws similar praise in Europe--but not from everyone.
While French journalist Francois Thomazeau estimates that "80
percent of the French public respects and loves Lance," it was
the other 20% that made its presence felt on the grueling climb
to Mont Ventoux in Provence on July 21. Armstrong, who is
randomly tested for drugs throughout the year and has always
been clean, has nevertheless faced suspicion that given his
domination of a drug-tainted sport, he must be illegally
boosting his performance. And so he was heckled with cries of
"Dope!" as he chased France's Richard Virenque, a rider who
confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs with the Festina
team that was ousted from the Tour in 1998 and served a
nine-month suspension. While Virenque would credit his eventual
win in that stage to the cheering of the crowds, Armstrong heard
little support for himself. "It's disappointing," said
Armstrong. "A boo is a lot louder than a cheer. If you have 10
people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the

For all his amazing performances in the Tour, Armstrong still
doesn't receive the deferential treatment from the peloton that
past greats like Eddy Merckx (five Tour victories) did. "Every
day we come to the start with the same desire: to ride the race
the way we want," said Postie Viatcheslav Ekimov, a 36-year-old
Russian who was riding in his 12th Tour and helping Armstrong to
victory for the third time. "But that's become more difficult.
It used to be that the yellow jersey was respected. In the '90s,
for example, if there was any word from the yellow jersey that
we should take it easy today, everyone just agreed. But now it's
a different generation, a different time. There are a lot of
young riders with ambition. Everybody realizes that one day
could make your whole year. So everybody tries to take his
chance. Now, all the last stages just scare me. We know it's
going to be so hard, so tough, so speedy. Sometimes you know
there is going to be a break that you are going to have to chase
all day."

Imagine the plight of those other riders in the peloton: They
know there's going to be one guy they'll need to chase year
after year.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUNO FABLET/REUTERS/POOL [COVER] SuperMan The unbeatable Lance Armstrong rides away with his fourth Tour de France

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS MOUNTAIN MEN Armstrong (yellow jersey), along with his U.S. Postal team, led through the French Alps during stage 16.

COLOR PHOTO: OLIVER MORIN/AFP (TOP) SCENIC ROUTE During stage 3 (right), riders were tightly bunched; by stage 18 (top) the yellow-jerseyed Armstrong and his Postal team were in the clear.


COLOR PHOTO: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS (TOP) LIKE A BLUR Armstrong's time-trial victory helped him win the Tour by more than seven minutes, his second-biggest winning margin.

COLOR PHOTO: BRUNO FABLET/REUTERS/POOL PILEUP Armstrong was not caught in this melee during stage 5, but he had a near crash two days later and lost 27 seconds.

COLOR PHOTO: STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS (TOP) ESCORT Thanks to help from U.S. Postal rider Heras (front), Armstrong took the yellow jersey for good in stage 11.

COLOR PHOTO: OLIVIER MORIN/AFP WRAPPED UP Armstrong's wife, Kristin, provided encouragement along the way.

By dominating the mountain stages and winning the second time
trial, Armstrong proved he's still the master of the race.

This year's race was perhaps Armstrong's easiest win, if easy can
be applied to a 2,032-mile, three-week event.

"This is the year of the team," says Armstrong. "This team
is much stronger than ever. It's made it a lot easier for me."