Armstrong gets first American win since 1998
ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Lance Armstrong looks Tour-ready.
With a surprising burst of April power, Armstrong cruised to a comfortable win Sunday in the Tour de Georgia, his first victory in an American stage race since 1998.
Of course, this was only a prelude to Armstrong's summer plans -- going for a record sixth straight win in the Tour de France. By all indications, he's right on schedule.
"I don't think I can say anything is wrong right now," Armstrong said, sporting a yellow jersey as the overall winner. "Actually, things might be a little hot right now. I need to cool down a bit."
To those who raced against Armstrong for six days through the back roads of Georgia, there's no doubt he'll be riding triumphantly down the Champs-Elysees in July with history on his handlebars.
"There's no one who's going to beat him," said Canada's Gord Fraser, who won the seventh stage of the six-day race with a furious sprint to the line. "It's going to take something like a tactical mistake for him to lose, but he doesn't make those."
Armstrong came into the final 88.4-mile stage of the Tour de Georgia with a 24-second lead and simply had to make sure that Germany's Jens Voigt, in second place, didn't break away.
Nearly everyone arrived in Alpharetta together, finishing the race with four 3.6-mile circuits around the streets of the north Atlanta suburb.
Tens of thousands of people lined the route, a stunning turnout for a sport that has struggled to gain a foothold in the United States. While just about every garage has a bike, few people have shown an inclination to follow cycling on a regular basis.
Armstrong transcends the sport, making fans of those who don't know the difference between a peloton and a breakaway. He's the guy who beat cancer, then beat the Europeans at their own sport.
The fans waved yellow "Lance fans" to keep cool on a sunny, humid day, and crowded around him like a rock star when he made his way to the victory podium.
"Go get six!" the fans chanted as he held up the winner's trophy -- a replica of two bike wheels holding up a peach.
So, how did the sport's greatest star wind up at a fledgling, 2-year-old race in Georgia?
After getting divorced, the Texan wanted to spend more time at home with his three young children during the lead-up to the Tour de France. The Tour de Georgia fit perfectly into his training schedule.
Armstrong took control by winning both stages Thursday, then protected his lead during two grueling treks through the north Georgia mountains. The final stage was academic -- Armstrong didn't have go for the win, merely stay near the front, protected from trouble by his U.S. Postal Service teammates.
"It's always nice to win," he said. "It's also nice to come and meet some objectives, like doing a good time trial, doing some good climbs. We worked well on the team. It was a complete win."
Armstrong came to Georgia with low expectations, pointing out that he had not raced in three weeks. He wound up with his first stage-race win in America since the Cascade Cycling Classic in Oregon six years ago.
"Some guys can just relax when they don't need to win," said Jonathan Vaughters, who runs the U.S. under-23 program. "But Lance innately has something in him that puts pressure on himself to win, no matter what."
Mario Cipollini came up the final hill with the lead, only to have Fraser dip to the right and stick his front tire on the line ahead of the Italian star. Armstrong finished 66th but was credited with the same time as all 76 cyclists in the lead pack: 3 hours, 20 minutes, 15 seconds.
The overall winning time was 25:39:20, leaving Voigt with the same 24-second deficit he had at the beginning of the day. American Chris Horner, who won the inaugural Tour de Georgia, was third this time against a much stronger field, 1:01 behind Armstrong.
Fraser relished his narrow win over Cipollini, who also was nipped at the line by Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina. "Super Mario" was apparently so disgusted at getting caught in a sprint -- his specialty -- that he skipped out before the award ceremony. He was fined by cycling's governing body and also forfeited his third-place prize money.
"To come around a guy like Cippo in the sprint is very rewarding," Fraser said. "I've never done that before."
Horner had never seen a crowd like this for a stage race in America. Several attempts to establish the sport -- Tour de Trump, Tour du Pont, Coors Classic -- faded away because of disinterest and lack of sponsorship.
Maybe this time will be different.
"They were lined up for the entire circuit," Horner said. "There was not a section of empty space the entire route. Every turn, every neighborhood, the people were lined up."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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