Austin fans love Lance's story

Updated: July 25, 2004, 4:13 PM ET
Associated Press

AUSTIN -- What started as a surprise victory party in 1999 has become a rite of summer in Lance Armstrong's adopted hometown. Now his loyal fans wonder much longer the party will last.

With yellow shirts, Tour de France watch parties and "Go Lance" signs popping up just about everywhere, Austin hasn't lost its fervor for the man many Texans still regard as medical miracle and a sporting hero.

Sunday was like every other Armstrong victory in Texas' capital city as fans tuned in early to watch the race's final stage in Paris at local pubs or bike shops.

Although his sixth consecutive victory wasn't in doubt on the final day, they cheered Armstrong crossing the finish line and striding to the podium to take his place as the greatest rider in Tour history.

The loudest came when Armstrong counted the victories on his fingers and held up six for the camera.

"If you have a heartbeat, you're a fan of his story," said Adam Reiser, co-owner of a bike shop in a trendy South Austin neighborhood where merchants erected a giant yellow "Go Lance" billboard.

Austin has embraced Armstrong in part because of his extraordinary battle against testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain and because he has so warmly embraced the city.

Armstrong was raised in the Dallas suburb of Plano, a town he described in his 2000 autobiography "It's Not About the Bike" as "soul deadening" and too conformist.

Austin's reputation is the complete opposite with its hip, freewheeling lifestyle mix of musicians, students and high-tech yuppies. Armstrong's cancer foundation is headquartered here and fans regularly spot him riding in the Texas Hill Country when he's training or eating in local restaurants.

"Austin probably feels closer to Lance and the tour than any other city in America," said Reiser, who keeps one of Armstrong's autographed yellow Tour de France jerseys on the wall in a glass case.

On Sunday, customers lined up to buy yellow $20 T-shirts that proclaimed "In Lance We Trust" on the front and "Texas 6, France 0" on the back.

At Fado's Irish Pub, fans arrived at 8 a.m. for a watch party. Most wore the cancer foundation's yellow "Live Strong" wrist bands.

"I thought it would be a tougher race," said Barry Johnson. "He sure looked like he was as prepared as ever."

Unlike 2003 when Armstrong fought through spills and sickness to hold off Germany's Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds, he thoroughly dominated the last week of racing to make Sunday a breeze.

"I was worried about some crazy German fan tackling him," said Justin Burrow.

Fans also said they had worried Armstrong's divorce from wife Kristin and his new relationship with rock star Sheryl Crow would distract him. Crow garnered a large cheer when she smiled for the cameras in France.

"Maybe he wanted to impress her," said Francois Monette.

Kristin Armstrong used to get the same cheers. She still lives in Austin but did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.

On Sunday, Armstrong's fans wondered if they had seen his last Tour de France victory. Armstrong hasn't yet committed to racing in 2005.

"That's caused some consternation in the cycling community here," said Reiser, the bike shop owner. "My gut instinct is he would not go out without racing one more time."

Watching the race's final seconds, Farzad Azimpour noted how Armstrong blazed through the final week and wondered if it wasn't a goodbye statement.

"It's better to burn out than fade away," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press