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Lance Armstrong’s Last Race

July 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Long before Lance Armstrong began celebrating his seventh and final victory in the Tour de France, it had been clear he would win again. Perhaps not as stunning as previous wins, like his first in 1999 when he returned to racing after battling testicular cancer, the seventh victory may have been the most efficient. Armstrong wore the leader’s yellow jersey for 17 of 21 days, and for most of the 2,220-plus miles of the race. As he took his final bows before retirement, he addressed those who had accused him of using drugs over the years.

LANCE ARMSTRONG: And finally the last thing I’ll say for people that don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big, and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race, this is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes and you should believe in these people. And I’m a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live and there are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it, so vive le tour, forever. Thank you. (Cheers and applause)

RAY SUAREZ: The 33-year-old Armstrong is now headed to the south of France for a vacation with his three children and his companion, singer Sheryl Crow.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Armstrong’s legacy, I’m joined by Paul Sherwen, a seven-time competitor in the Tour de France; he’s been covering the race since his retirement from pro cycling and is now a commentator for the Outdoor Life Network. Paul Sherwen, welcome. We’re in day one of the post Armstrong era. How do you look back at his career?

PAUL SHERWEN, Outdoor Life Network: Well, it’s a little bit strange to think that we’ll never see Lance Armstrong actually compete as a professional cyclist ever again. But I have to say if you look back at his career you have got to look at it I think in two parts. There were the pre-cancer Lance Armstrong era and the post cancer as well. A lot of people tend to forget that there was a pre-cancer Lance Armstrong who at 21 years of age was probably one of the youngest ever world professional cycling champions. And then after cancer to me that was his greatest battle coming back and actually being alive because a lot of people told me that that man was really destined to be dead within three months the last time I saw him in 1996. And all of a sudden from 1999 until to date he’s actually dominated the arena of the Tour de France and I think the legacy is he’s to me become the greatest specialist in the world at the Tour de France.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how did it change him since you watched him over all those years as an athlete, as a person?

PAUL SHERWEN: Well I think it’s had two profound effects on Lance really. When he had the cancer and went through chemotherapy before he was a very good specialist at one-day events but the cancer and the treatment made him lose around about 20 pounds in weight. But he was very lucky in that he actually retained the majority of his strength and the majority of his lung capacity because the cancer had actually got into his lungs and the treatments that he had actually was able to keep most of his lung capacity intact. And I think the important thing then is that he went on to really prove that he was a major specialist. He learned how to enjoy training because before — I knew Lance Armstrong before he had cancer and he used to race to get fit. Once he’d had cancer, once he’d looked death in the eyes I think all of a sudden he enjoyed his training; he enjoyed life. Every day was a bonus.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it possible to compare winning the Tour de France and the preparation that it takes with other standout performances in individual athletic competition or is it just all on its own?

PAUL SHERWEN: I think it’s very, very difficult. The only thing you can do is take one mountain stage of the Tour de France and maybe compare it to the New York Marathon. But then after that what you have to bear in mind is that the Tour de France is actually 21 stages like that every day. And you have to participate and complete every one of those stages. And that’s what makes it such a grueling event. There is actually even a percentage of the winners’ time that you have to complete the route in every day to stay involved. That I think, it’s… the only thing I could think that it would possibly be like is climbing Mount Everest.

RAY SUAREZ: Aficionados seem to be arguing about just where Lance Armstrong fits among the sports’ greats because in earlier decades a lot of his rivals among the top racers raced a lot more and won a lot more.

PAUL SHERWEN: Well, they did. But, you know, the sport changes. Life changes. Everything changes as we progress. I think if you really want to situate Lance Armstrong, you have got to say that he’s the best professional cyclist at the Tour de France that the world has ever seen. To me– and this is only my own personal opinion– he will never be the greatest cyclist of all time because that title will always belong to Eddie Mercks, who was the Mohammed Ali of cycling. Eddie Mercks participated in 1,500 races and he won 530 including five Tours de France, five Tours of Italy, three Tours of Spain plus all the one-day classics but that was also a different era when you could be competitive from February right the way through to October. Armstrong has changed the sport in making riders look at specific goals throughout the season and picking those goals and to peak… I mean Armstrong over the last seven years since 1999 has come out at certain times during the season basically just to test himself, to test his body, to make sure that he was on track to be fit for just three weeks of the year, and that three weeks of the year was always tuned in to be the month of July.

RAY SUAREZ: In the last couple of weeks Lance Armstrong said I’ve had an unbelievable career. There’s no reason to continue. I don’t need more. Now other great athletes have said something similar and come out of retirement. Do you think that will happen with Lance Armstrong?

PAUL SHERWEN: No, no, not at all. I think there’s a difference between the sport of professional cycling and Tour de France with any other professional sporting event. Armstrong, to put it into perspective, is actually I think the third oldest rider to win the Tour de France since the Second World War only beaten by two Italians who were roughly the same age, 34 years of age. Armstrong will be 34 in September. I think Lance understood that one day or another, Lady Time was going to catch up with him and he wouldn’t be able to win the Tour de France anymore. And once he made the decision to actually retire at the end of the Tour de France this year I think that was a magnificent decision to make, to be able to retire at the top of the sport. I don’t think he will be able to come back to ride the Tour de France again, physically as well as mentally because the one thing a lot of people can’t understand, yes, Armstrong is the strongest athlete in the month of July, but you don’t see the 12 months of preparation to be magnificent in July. You don’t see the anguish of going out in the rain, the anguish of racing up mountains, in training in subzero conditions. All that mental stress I think has finally started to pay on him. And I think now Armstrong actually wants to have a normal, if he can ever have a normal lifestyle.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Sherwen joining us from where the Tour de France ends in Paris. Thanks a lot for being with us.

PAUL SHERWEN: Thank you.