Armstrong is first to win AP award four straight years


AUSTIN, Texas -- Lance Armstrong takes fewer bike rides these days. He even describes himself as out of shape since retiring after his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory in July.

But he remains unbeatable.

Armstrong was honored Wednesday as The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for the fourth straight year. He is the only athlete to be selected by sports writers four times since the honor first was awarded in 1931.

Armstrong received 30 of the 83 votes cast. Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush of Southern California was second with 23 votes, and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was third with eight, followed by tennis star Roger Federer and golf's Tiger Woods with seven each.

"It's nice to win," Armstrong said. "I'll never win again."

Not unless his new hobby of kiteboarding -- think of a small surfboard or ski attached to a kite -- becomes a
mainstream sport.

"I may have to take up golf," he said. "Take on Tiger."

Also Wednesday, Annika Sorenstam was selected as the AP Female Athlete of the Year.

Armstrong, 34, retired after deciding there were no more mountains to conquer on his bike.

"I'd hoped to go out on top," he said. "As a sportsman it's really hard to do, to time it right."

The Texan calls his 2005 season "a dream." His final Tour was another dominant performance -- he won by the comfortable margin of 4 minutes, 40 seconds. Stepping off the winner's podium for the final time, his goal was to kick back "with a beer, having a blast" and play with his three young children from his first marriage.

But it wasn't long before things turned sour.

In August, barely a month after he stepped into the Parisian twilight, the French sports daily L'Equipe reported that six urine samples Armstrong provided during his first Tour win in 1999 tested positive for the red blood cell booster EPO.

It was the most serious challenge to the legacy of an athlete who survived testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and brain, to become one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation.

Armstrong angrily denied the charge, saying he felt like the victim of a "setup" in a long-standing feud with the French media.

"The latter part of the year with the rumor, that was a nightmare," he said. "Fortunately, sports fans see through it."

By September, he was happy again and announced his engagement to Sheryl Crow, his rock star girlfriend. But his competitive side was creeping up.

He created a stir when he said he might come out of retirement, mostly to win the Tour again in one last, grand taunt at the French. But he quickly retreated from that idea.

"It was fairly serious, but I didn't realize how much play it would get," Armstrong said. "My fault. In hindsight, I shouldn't have done it."

He isn't spending much time looking backward anymore. It's all about what lies ahead.

He founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997 and is ready to dedicate his time to lobbying for money for cancer research and survivorship programs.

"Cancer and what all can be done there, not just in the world of health care, but if it's education or political, this is a very real issue," Armstrong said. "We're at an interesting time in medical research. That would be a serious rush for me if I could effect change there.

"The initiatives to effect change will come out of the foundation," he said. "The think tank is there."

Armstrong points to rock singer Bono's lobbying for help for the world's poor and AIDS-stricken as a prime example of the power celebrity can bring to an issue.

He also realizes that battles involving politics and money could be much more difficult than anything he faced on the bike. He figures he won't be doing it alone, though, noting the 60 million "LiveStrong" yellow bracelets the foundation has sold since 2004.

"I know not all 60 million bought them because of a connection to cancer, but a lot of them did," he said. "When you consider that army, there's a powerful force for change.

"It is a challenge," he said. "But ultimately it has a reward."

In the meantime, Armstrong is settling into a life of not having to train every day or watch everything he eats. But even that can't last too long -- he's put on about 10 pounds and says that's enough because "I'm out of shape."

Two days before Christmas, he went on a two-hour mountain bike ride on his central Texas ranch. It was on a retreat to a coastal resort in Mexico when he tried kiteboarding, something he says "I never could have done" when he was competing.

He also recently finished shooting a cameo role in the upcoming movie "You, Me and Dupree," with Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson. Just like his spot in the movie "Dodgeball," Armstrong plays himself.

Now he says it might be time to branch out in his acting.

"No more being me," he said. "I want to play like a crazed killer, something out of 'Pulp Fiction.'"