The greatest sports story ever told?

In 1996, Lance Armstrong was given a 40% chance of surviving cancer. Yesterday, he pedaled his way to his sixth Tour de France victory.

Published July 26, 2004 1:54PM (EDT)

Seven years after completing treatment for cancer so virulent that he was given only a 40% chance of survival, the American cyclist Lance Armstrong yesterday became the first man to win the Tour de France, the world's most gruelling sporting challenge, on six occasions.

After spending 83 hours 36 minutes and two seconds in the saddle since the race began three weeks ago, Armstrong pedalled over the cobbles of the sunlit Champs-Elysies to claim a victory that some believe sets the seal on the greatest story in modern sport.

The 32-year-old Texan's tale has already been the subject of two best-selling volumes of autobiography, and his battle against the disease has inspired the foundation of a hugely successful cancer charity.

Brought up in a small town by a teenage single mother, Armstrong showed an early talent for running and swimming. At 16, having saved his pocket money, he bought his first bicycle and took up the triathlon. A professional cyclist at 20, he entered the Tour de France for the first time a year later and, as a brash unknown, became the youngest man to win a stage in the race since the second world war.

"Even as a child," his mother said, "he knew what he wanted," and his career was going nicely when, in the autumn of 1996, he noticed specks of blood appearing when he coughed. At St David's hospital in Austin, Texas, he was told that testicular cancer had spread to his lungs and his brain. A two-hour operation the next day was followed by three months of intensive chemotherapy in Indianapolis.

"If I wasn't in pain, I was vomiting," he wrote in the award-winning book It's Not About The Bike, "and if I wasn't vomiting I was thinking about what I had. Chemo was a burning in my veins, a matter of being slowly eaten from the inside out by a destroying river of pollutants." Nevertheless, only 518 days later he was back in the saddle, competing in a race.

Yesterday many of his fellow riders were wearing the yellow bracelet that has been sold, for a dollar or a euro, all the way along the 2,000 miles of the Tour's route. More than $5m (#2.8m) will be raised by this means for Armstrong's foundation, whose motto is "Live strong".

His triumph has been shadowed, however, by persistent claims concerning his association with an Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari, who is under investigation for allegedly supplying EPO, a synthetic human growth hormone, to riders. At the beginning of this year's Tour the publication in French of a book entitled LA Confidentiel, featuring claims that his team had systematically used EPO, provoked an angry response from Armstrong. After failing in a legal attempt to force the publishers to include his own statement in every copy, he has promised to sue the authors for libel.

The American's success has come at a time when the phenomenon of widespread drug-taking within the sport is receiving greater publicity than ever before, thanks to the aggressive action of the French police and a handful of investigative journalists.

Several prominent cyclists, most recently the British rider David Millar, have been banned from competition. Marco Pantani, an Italian who became the last man to win the Tour before Armstrong began his run of victories, died this year from an overdose of heroin and cocaine, his career ruined by a series of positive dope tests.

Armstrong, however, has tested positive only once, in 1999, when minute traces of a synthetic cortocosteroid were discovered in a urine sample. The authorities accepted his explanation that it had been part of a proprietary skin cream used to treat saddle boils, an inescapable feature of the cycle racer's arduous life.

The public's divergent views on the nature of his success were evident last week on the climb up to l'Alpe d'Huez, one of the Tour's most famous features, where fans paint messages of support on the steeply winding roadway. As he raced along, Armstrong's eyes passed over a series of messages ranging in tone from "RIP THEIR BALLS OFF, LANCE" to "EPO ARMSTRONG". A few days earlier he was said to have been spat on by spectators.

Most cycling fans, however, accept that the use of illegal performance-enhancing substances goes back as far as the origins of the 101-year-old Tour.

When Jacques Anquetil, one of the quartet of five-times winners, was once asked about doping, he responded in exasperation: "Do they expect us to ride up these mountains on mineral water?" Un til concrete evidence is produced against Armstrong, the majority appear content to welcome him to a unique place in the pantheon.

For the sixth year in succession the Star-Spangled Banner sounded on the Champs-Elysies as he ascended the podium to accept the trophy and don the yellow jersey under the eye of his girlfriend Sheryl Crow, the rock singer, who not only followed him around the race but accompanied him on the weeks of training runs with which he reconnoitred the course in the spring. His friend Robin Williams, the actor, was also at hand.

Although Armstrong, who lives most of the year in Spain, has pointedly expressed his disapproval of George Bush's foreign policy, the president, a fellow Texan, yesterday called him to congratulate him on behalf of the nation. "You're awesome," he told him.

The minute thoroughness of Armstrong's preparation, and the collective strength of his US Postal Service team, are among the factors contributing to the success that has made him a multimillionaire.

What is less easy to define is the origin of a ferocious competitive spirit that burned even more fiercely this year as he reduced his rivals to shattered wrecks. Calling it revenge on the disease that tried to take his life is too glib. Armstrong was a fighter from the start. But cancer certainly gave him the experience of confronting and beating a bigger opponent than any he has faced on a bike.

By Richard Williams

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