SPENCER MICHELS: It was one of the closest, most dramatic, and interesting races of the Tour de France in years. By the time American Lance Armstrong pedaled along the Champs-Elysees yesterday to claim his fifth consecutive championship, he had survived his toughest battle since his first victory in 1999.
After racing more than 2,000 miles over 20 days, complete with crashes, rain, and mountain climbs in grueling heat, Armstrong, who led the U.S. Postal Service team, won this race by his narrowest margin yet-- just 61 seconds over his rival, German Jan Ullrich. At 31 years old, Armstrong became just the second man to win five tours in a row. Spanish rider Miguel Endurain was the first to do it between 1991 and 1995.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: This was the hardest of the five. It was much harder. I thought it would be close, but this was a lot closer than I guess I had expected and I wasn't really prepared for that. It added a lot of stress to life the last three weeks.
SPENCER MICHELS: This marked the 100th Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious race. Competitors literally tour much of the country, pedaling high into the Alps and Pyrenees. The cyclists try to win a series of short races each called stages, each about [90 to 140] miles or so. The winner must have the fastest cumulative time overall. Many consider it to be the most difficult of any athletic competition.
NEWSCASTER: Armstrong is having a terrible day. But it is a great day -
SPENCER MICHELS: From the start, it was a race filled with obstacles and tensions not just for Armstrong, but other riders as well. American cyclist Tyler Hamilton suffered a double fracture of his collarbone during a crash. But he pressed on and finished fourth overall.
SPOKESMAN: It's a team sport and I didn't want to let my team down.
SPENCER MICHELS: For his part, the German rider, Jan Ullrich, competed despite returning from a knee injury and an eight-month ban from the sport for using drugs. A former champion of the tour and a four-time runner up, Ullrich stayed neck and neck with Armstrong throughout the month. But it was Armstrong who continued to amaze.
Unlike past races, he did not dominate in the Alps. He narrowly avoided one wipeout by riding off the path, and he nearly lost his shot at winning after crashing when his handlebar caught on a spectator's handbag.
NEWSCASTER: Armstrong wants to go right now. Oooh! He has gone down! What has happened there?
SPENCER MICHELS: While Ullrich and other competitors waited for him, a courtesy usually extended on the tour, Armstrong quickly got back on the bike, and then rallied from behind to win that day's stage.
NEWSCASTER: That is a recovery for you. He saves the day!
SPENCER MICHELS: At one point, Armstrong only had a 15-second lead over Ullrich. Fans, including movie actor Robin Williams, felt the intensity of the race.
ROBIN WILLIAMS: It's a great tour. It's been amazing. It has everything. It's like NASCAR without explosions. It's got it all. Downhill, uphill, and incredible moments of humanity like when Ullrich waited for him.
SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, the race was so close that it came down to the penultimate day of the tour before it was clear who would win.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: Ullrich will be difficult to beat, but going in my objective is to win.
SPENCER MICHELS: Armstrong's lead was only slightly more than a minute over Ullrich, as they entered the final time trials of the race. This time, it was Ullrich who crashed, allowing Armstrong to play it safe and hold on to win.
NEWSCASTER: Armstrong had a wonderful ride, but in the end didn't push it too much.
SPENCER MICHELS: Armstrong won his first tour after battling back from testicular cancer during the mid-'90s. Today, after the latest grueling win, he put it all in perspective.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: It's been a very difficult three weeks of course, but somehow along the way you have these problems and you always look back to 1996 and you realize that a crash on Luz-Ardiden or a little cycle across into gap is not nearly as bad as sitting in a hospital room in Indianapolis, Indiana. And so drawing on that experience helps and perhaps is one of the secrets to winning the tour.
SPENCER MICHELS: Armstrong now says he will take a short break from cycling, but plans on capturing a record sixth title next year.