For this year's reigning athlete, see French Alps

Forget Tiger Woods. Forget Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant, even Cal Ripken Jr.

Lance Armstrong is the male athlete of 2001.

Okay, it's only summer, and there's plenty more sport to be played before the hardware is handed out. But what Armstrong has been doing in the French Alps and Pyrenees is in a class of its own.

He's pedaled the world's best cyclists into submission. He slows down for them when they're hurt, then torches them on the steep mountains when it counts the most. At times, it looks like he belongs to a different species.

That's how dominant he is.

Barring a major disaster, Armstrong will win his third consecutive Tour de France Sunday. The wrought-iron Texan will coast down the Champs-Elysees in Paris with the yellow shirt once again, cementing his standing as one of the greatest American cyclists of all time.

"This year he is stronger than ever," Jan Ullrich of Germany told reporters earlier this week. "Simply unbeatable."

Ullrich is no slouch, himself. He's Armstrong's closest rival, and is said to be in the best shape of his life. When he fell last week, Armstrong slowed down to give him a chance to get back up, and even asked if he was okay. It was a gentlemanly act, rarely seen in other sports, but common to cycling.

Then Armstrong hit full throttle and left Ullrich in the dust.

By then, the three-week Tour de France was unofficially over. Ullrich never had a chance.

"Lance Armstrong is on top of the world," says Vincent Menci, curator of the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in Somerville, N.J.

"He has to be considered among the greatest American road racers of all time. If he could win the Tour de France a couple more times, he could be among the greatest ever."

And there's some heavy competition at the top of the racing record books.

American Greg LeMonde won the Tour de France three times, in '86, '89, and '90, but his career was cut short by a hunting accident. Miguel Indurain of Spain won five in a row, from 1991 to 1995. Belgian Eddie Merckx, considered by many to be the greatest of the great, also won five, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Armstrong, it appears, has plenty more fire in him, and his assault on the record books is only likely to continue. He may have had a fight with a serious illness, but for now he seems stronger than ever, in body and spirit.

He's also managed to do it coming from a country where cycling is a secondary - if not obscure - sport. Much like soccer, Americans don't care about it. It takes too much patience to watch, and it's barely ever on TV.

American cycling officials hope Armstrong can give the sport a boost, maybe bring it back to where it was in the '70s, maybe do for cycling what Tiger Woods did for golf.

So far, it hasn't happened.

Part of it has to do with Armstrong's personality. Although his reputation has improved recently, he's known for being wound incredibly tight - especially compared to the rest of the laid-back American cycling scene.

"He's incredibly intense and not real fun to be around," says one person who's known him for years. "But I guess that's how it is when you're an international star."

But cycling's struggle to gain ground in the US runs far deeper than Armstrong.

"Many racers across the country are feeling the pinch," says Bob Lundberg, an official at American Bicycle Racing, a grass-roots organization that promotes the sport and sanctions events. "Safer roads are harder to come by, even in the country. It's fine to take the kids out for a round of golf or another sport, but I don't know too many parents who feel comfortable letting their 13-year-old go for a 20-mile ride on city streets."

According to Lundberg, most active racers today are in their 30s or older. Only a handful of juniors show up for most events.

Armstrong's impact, however, has resounded through the cycling world. He and his US Postal Service teammates train better than their competition and put more focus on the big events.

"He's able to train specifically, year-round, for the Tour de France," says Kip Mikler, the editor of Velo News, a US journal for competitive cycling. "A lot of his competitors do far more races."

Armstrong has also developed a unique style of pedaling though the mountains that takes advantage of his slim physique. He uses a low gear on his bike and generates about 90 pedal revolutions per minute (r.p.m.) - in contrast with the larger, more powerful Ullrich, who usually remains under 60 r.p.m. on a steep incline.

One problem Armstrong can't seem to outrun, however, is accusations of doping, which have bounced through the European press in recent weeks. Even though cycling has the most stringent antidoping policies of any major sport, and even though he has repeatedly passed drug tests, Armstrong has been dogged by his association with an Italian doctor who has been linked to doping.

It's almost as if people think he's too good to be real.

"Is it questionable? Perhaps," he told reporters this week about how his association with the doctor may appear.

"But people are smart. They will say, 'Has Lance Armstrong ever tested positive? No. Has Lance Armstrong ever been tested? A lot.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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