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Lance Armstrong: Steel on two wheels

PARIS - PARIS (AP) — If, for a dare, the likes of Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and Roger Federer were asked to race the Tour de France, how long would they survive? A day on steep uphills in the thin air of the Alps? A week on roads so sun-scorched that the tarmac melts?

Which is why, if judged solely on physical endurance, Lance Armstrong would hands-down win The Associated Press' Athlete of the Decade award.

Perhaps never again will any athlete, let alone a cancer survivor, dominate the most grueling event in sports like he did. In winning seven consecutive Tours from 1999-2005, Armstrong not only made history, obliterating the previous record of five wins. He also transformed cycling, gave a kiss of life to the legendary race that had nearly overdosed on drug scandals and raised the bar on the definition of "exceptional."

In doing so, Armstrong became one of the most divisive figures in his sport. His two-wheeled exploits were so superhuman that they divided mere mortals into two camps: those he inspired against those who suspect, without ironclad proof, that he must have doped.

With Armstrong, it all comes down to belief. No one believes in Armstrong more strongly than Armstrong himself. Of everything, that was perhaps his most vital winning ingredient.

A modest, fatherless childhood and being written off as an athlete when cancer doctors gave him less than a 50/50 chance of living left Armstrong with a chip on his shoulder as large as his native Texas. "I'll show 'em" could be his motto. More than merely competitive, Armstrong thrives on confrontation. Deadly illness, dizzying mountain climbs, accusations of doping, perceived slights from other riders — all these and more he burned as fuel to power his intense drive.

His first post-op words to the surgeon who removed tumors from his brain, according to the cyclist, were "I can kick your ass on a bike any day."

At the Tour, the most ferocious demonstration of his implacable will came in the mist-cooled Pyrenees in 2003, when his winning streak brushed within a whisker of a premature end. Accelerating uphill away from his rivals, Armstrong shaved too close to the roadside crowds and snagged his handlebar on a spectator's bag, slamming him to the ground.

Riders with less steel and less luck — Armstrong was fortunate not to break a bone — might have thrown up their hands in despair. Not him. His eyes burning charcoal black with fury, Armstrong jumped back on his bike and powered past everyone, rescuing what until then had been a sub-par race for him. Of the Tours he won, that was the only one where he showed hints of vulnerability.

"Everyone has a bad day, an off day but Lance is that well trained that it never happens to him. Hats off," says 13-time Tour veteran Stuart O'Grady. "For seven years, to never fall sick, to never have (a serious) accident. The level of professionalism that he's shown has made cycling that much bigger. Armstrong is a superstar, a celebrity in all aspects of life."

Passing years, wealth, fame, fatherhood and traveling the world smoothed some of Armstrong's abrasiveness. As much as he showed a mean streak on the bike, he has shown compassion off it, throwing himself into campaigning against cancer with the same zeal he once reserved for cycling. But even as he developed a taste for modern art, populated gossip pages and rubbed shoulders with presidents and pop stars, the need to prove himself still smoldered under his tailored suits.

After his last win in 2005, Armstrong announced that he was "100 percent retired" and that "it would take an absolute miracle to bring me back." In fact, it took less than that in 2008 — just a belief that his successors weren't worthy and that he could still be a contender, and anger that doping accusations had followed him into retirement.

"I'm doing this for my kids," he told biographer John Wilcockson, explaining his comeback. "I don't want them growing up and reading all these things about me and doping."

Yet nothing Armstrong does will silence the suspicions. They appear destined for perpetual limbo, with Armstrong unable to prove he was clean — short of spending 24/7, 365 days a year under constant surveillance, who could? — and his accusers unable so far to produce incontrovertible evidence he was dirty.

It's an unsatisfactory situation that bothers even some of those who know, like and respect him. Prince Albert II of Monaco, a member of the International Olympic Committee, says Armstrong wouldn't be his athlete of the decade because of the doubts.

"Obviously you can also argue, 'OK, maybe he took something a few years ago and then now how could he be on something after winning the battle against cancer? How could he afford simply health-wise to be on any kind of drugs?' But he still had results after that, incredible ones," the prince told the AP. "It is a very tricky one."

What is certain is that five of the eight riders who shared the Tour podium with Armstrong in his winning years served doping bans at some point in their careers. Another two were allegedly tied to doping rings. Armstrong was the leader among a sullied bunch.

Armstrong's laserlike focus on the Tour, building his year and team toward that sole goal, had no equal. His attention to detail and use of new technology raised standards in cycling. In spring training, on empty, rain-soaked roads and snow-blocked mountain passes, Armstrong methodically reconnoitered the route, planning where he would strike during the three Tour weeks in July. Traditionalists in France huffed at Armstrong's "American" ways, bridling that he steamrollered over their beloved race without the off-the-cuff panache of a rider like Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx, whom Armstrong calls the greatest cyclist ever.

But, in doing so, the French also paid Armstrong a strange backhanded compliment, because only those at very top draw such emotion in this nation of revolution.

"The French public doesn't like people who win," says Jean-Francois Pescheux, who as competition director for the Tour designs the route. "The first year, they're happy. The second year, less so and at the third, they have had enough."

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