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By VeloNews Interactive, With wire services
Leblanc: Armstrong big, but Tour is bigger
Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc paid homage to record six-time winner Lance Armstrong but insisted the world’s most famous cycling race was bigger than the men who have won it.
Asked if Armstrong was the greatest Tour champion ever, Leblanc said: “Figures say yes. He’s the only one to have won it six times. He won stages of all kinds, time trials, mountain stages. He’s an accomplished champion, but he’s not invincible.
“Except for last year, he has never showed any signs of weakness. His reign can be explained by his individual strength and the strength of his team but also by the opposition’s frailty.”
Armstrong has sometimes been compared to German Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher for his ruthless domination of his sport, but Leblanc rejected suggestions that the lack of opposition to the Texan was damaging the Tour.
“His reign has not harmed the Tour but developed the interest for the race in the U.S.,” he said. “For instance the time trial at L’Alpe d’Huez was shown live on giant screens in New York and the Tour will continue to grow without him. It’s the race that makes the champion, not the opposite.”
Leblanc felt the 2004 Tour had been an excellent vintage not only because of Armstrong’s record chase but also because of the appearance of new talents.
“A number of challengers did not live up to expectations but we had the confirmation of riders like Ivan Basso or Andreas Klöden,” he said.
And in a final nod to Armstrong’s record-breaking performance this year, the Tour director said: “He taught other riders a lesson in terms of preparation and attention to detail. With him, the time of amateurism and romanticism has gone.”
Basso believes he can win Tour
Italian Ivan Basso (CSC) believes he can win the Tour de France one day after his performance as the main rival to six-time winner Lance earned him a third-place finish on Sunday.
Basso had looked to be heading for the runner-up spot before Saturday’s decisive time trial, when he was overtaken in the overall standings by German Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile).
“My Tour has still been stupendous,” the Italian said. “It was a slight blow to lose second place to Klöden by just a few seconds but, the truth is, I could even have lost third place to (Jan) Ullrich without a good ride in the time trial.
“Before the Tour I said I was aiming for the top five and so a place on the podium, even third place, is a dream come true for me. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Basso said his low point was the mountain time trial to L’Alpe d’Huez in the Alps, when he could only manage an eighth-place finish, 2:23 behind Armstrong.
“L’Alpe d’Huez time trial was the most difficult moment of the whole Tour for me,” he said. “I’m not a good time trialist but we’d worked hard to improve my technique – unfortunately we made a mistake when choosing my gears.
“In training, a front chain ring of 36 combined with a 21-tooth cog behind seemed idea,l but on the day after almost two weeks of hard racing it was too big a gear and I struggled to turn the pedals in my usual cadence.”
At just 26 years old, he added: “I have still seven or eight Tours de France ahead of me. I know I will win it one day. Now I know what I can do and what I want to achieve at the Tour in the next few years, to win the Tour one day.”
Virenque still King of the Mountains
Richard Virenque has survived the eras of Indurain, Armstrong and EPO almost unchanged, still sporting the polka-dot jersey that has become his trademark.
The darling of French cycling since he briefly held the Tour de France leader’s yellow jersey in 1992, Virenque first became King of the Mountains in 1994. A decade later, the Frenchman has won the Tour’s mountain classification a record seven times, eclipsing two other climbing greats, Spain’s Federico Bahamontes and Belgium’s Lucien van Impe.
Unlike those two, Virenque has never won the Tour, finishing second in 1997 behind Jan Ullrich with the Festina team. But in French hearts he has remained number one, even after the 1998 Festina doping scandal that caused him to be kicked out of the Tour and suspended for a season.
He returned to the sport with even greater motivation to silence the critics, adding four mountain stages and three polka-dot jerseys to the three stages and four jerseys he won before the scandal.
“I’ve known the Indurain era, the Ullrich era and then the Armstrong era. When I saw the way Lance started winning the Tour, I knew it was useless going for overall victory,” he said. “I went back to chasing the King of the Mountains jersey and I’m glad I did.”
At 35, the Frenchman’s popularity is intact and his name appears much more often on the roadsides than Armstrong’s. As a result, the Quick Step leader is considering riding for one more year.
“We will discuss it with (Quick Step team chief) Patrick Lefevere after the Tour to see what we do next season. If I feel I still have the legs and the motivation, why not?,” the Frenchman said.
Bush tells Armstrong: “You’re awesome”
President George W. Bush congratulated Lance Armstrong on his record-breaking sixth Tour de France victory, telling his fellow Texan by telephone: “You’re awesome.”
“The president congratulated him on behalf of the nation and told him he’s an outstanding athlete,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said as Bush relaxed on his “Prairie Chapel” ranch.
A hurt knee has led Bush, 58, to shift from jogging to bicycling, and he has watched Armstrong’s progress so closely in the last few weeks that he knew what days the Tour racers were off and where they were in France.
Earlier this month, Bush watched one stage of the race aboard his official Air Force One airplane and tied his campaign for reelection to Armstrong’s efforts to secure an unheard-of sixth victory.
“He’s going to win, and I’m going to win. There’s no need to worry about either race anymore,” said Bush.
The president, who likes to tear across the dusty landscape of his Texas ranch on a mountain bike, had not been known to follow the Tour, even though Armstrong gave him a bike and a yellow leader’s jersey in August 2001.