Armstrong victory a `miracle of medicine'
LANCE ARMSTRONG last night toasted his Tour de France victory as a ``miracle of medicine'' after claiming sport's most gruelling title to complete a remarkable recovery from cancer.
The 27-year-old Texan, only the second American to win the epic race, came home seven minutes 37 seconds clear of his nearest rival less than three years after surviving testicular cancer.
Switzerland's Alex Zulle finished second overall and Spain's Fernando Escartin third after Australia's Robbie McEwan took the 90-mile 20th and final stage from Arpajon to Paris in a late dash for the line.
Armstrong, of the US Postal team, had worn the leader's yellow jersey for all but six days of this year's race and his victory provided the perfect antidote to the torrid tales of drug-taking which overshadowed the 1998 Tour, although he, too, has had to overcome allegations of substance abuse from the disbelieving French press.
Armstrong had to deal with constant rumours and sniping that he might not be `clean' and might be taking dubious medicines to help his miraculous recovery from illness.
One of several drug tests showed minute traces of a synthetic hormone that was the result of using a skin cream but the race organisers thoroughly exonerated Armstrong from claims of any wrongdoing.
``It's just incredible. I am very emotional. I'm in shock,'' said Armstrong, who was diagnosed with a severe case of testicular cancer in 1996, which already had spread to his lungs and brain.
``I never expected to be here. I never expected to win. It's a wonderful feeling. I thank my team-mates. They did most of the work.''
Armstrong's mother, Linda, was shaking and waving a small US flag as she watched her son wave from the winner's podium.
She called his cancer a ``minor setback,'' and said ``it was never in our minds'' that he wouldn't recover.
Armstrong went into the audience to hug and kiss his wife, Kristin. ``He worked so hard to get this,'' she said. ``He deserves it, every last bit.''
ARMSTRONG had two operations one to remove a testicle and one for brain lesions and four rounds of chemotherapy.
``My victory is a miracle, a miracle of medicine,'' added Armstrong as he basked in the glory of following in the footsteps of Greg LeMond's hat-trick in 1986, 1989 and 1990.
``If there's one thing I say to those who use me as their example, it's that if you ever get a second chance in life, you've got to go all the way.''
``It was a long road to get to the Tour and a long road to get through it.''
Armstrong said that the victory was not his alone.
``It is 50 per cent for the cancer community, everyone involved, doctors, nurses, patients, family members and survivors. There is 25 per cent for me, my team and my family, and the remaining 25 per cent was for those who never believed in me.''
He insists that the experience of cancer strengthened his resolve. ``To race and suffer, that is hard, but that is nothing to being laid out in a hospital bed in Indianapolis with a catheter hanging out of my chest, with platinum pumping into my veins, throwing up for 24 hours straight for five days.''
What the American will still have to contend with is that he won in a field weakened by the absence of Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and Bjarne Riis the winners in the past three years. A winner's cheque for £1.375million should help.
Rabobank's 27-year-old McEwen crossed the line in 3hr 37min 39sec, a wheel rim ahead of Germany's Erik Zabel and Italy's Silvio Martinello with the remainder of the 141 survivors in hot pursuit.
In all, 180 riders began the race three weeks ago. Britain's Chris Boardman, having crashed out in the last two Tours, will have been pleased to have completed the race despite only finishing in 119th place, 2:47.48 behind the winner.
Richard Virenque, 12 months on from being thrown out of the Tour, won the final climb to confirm his fifth King of the Mountains title, just one off the record of six Polka-Dot jersey wins held by Belgium's Lucien Van Impe and Spain's Frederico Bahamontes.
Zabel, as the top sprinter, claimed the green jersey for the fourth time, and said: ``It's been a good Tour for cycling after last year's doping scandals.''
THIS year's Tour proved to be the fastest ever with the overall average speed of 40.273kph (25mph), moving above 40 for the first time. It was also the first Tour since 1926 that the host nation failed to claim a stage victory.
Thousands of fans lined the Champs Elysees to watch the cyclists ride 10 times around the famous avenue as the race came to a tumultuous climax amid clear blue skies and warm sunshine, but they had no local hero to cheer.
For the first time since 1926, a Frenchman didn't win a single stage of the Tour and, for only the fourth time since World War II, no home rider figured in the top five overall.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the legendary French duo of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon dominated the race, notching up seven victories between them.
But the last triumph for a French rider was Hinault's way back in 1985.
``It's a shame for the public that a French rider didn't win a stage. It isn't so good for French morale,'' tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said yesterday.
``Maybe the quality of French cycling isn't up to scratch at the moment. But don't forget (World No. 1 Laurent) Jalabert isn't here,'' he added.
The French are getting used to the feeling.
An Italian, Marco Pantani, won last time. In 1997 a German, Jan Ullrich, won for the first time, and the year before it was a Dane, Bjarne Riis.
In each of the last four years, the French have had only one top-five rider. This time its best placed was Virenque, in eighth.
French cyclist Thierry Gouvenou points out that this year's race began with 43 Italians, compared to only 39 Frenchmen.
``The Tour is getting more international, so it is logical that we aren't winning,'' he said.
But the French media was making no excuses: ``The French, what a mess!'' screamed a headline in sports daily L'Equipe.
The Times, London and other agencies.