Essay

Happy

Only with his Tour de France title finally assured during the last leg on the cobblestoned Champs-Elys Dees, did Lance Armstrong celebrate by lifting a flute of champagne to a resounding "Cheers!''

Overcoming crashes, illness, hard-charging rivals and plain old bad luck, the Texan won his hardest but sweetest Tour on Sunday — a record-tying fifth straight that places him among the greatest cyclists ever.

Unlike previous years, when he won by comfortable margins, the grueling 23-day, 2,125-mile clockwise trek around France pushed Armstrong to the limit.

"Before the Tour started I was very confident about winning. But before next year's Tour, I won't be so confident,'' he said.

Armstrong joined Spaniard Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win cycling's most brutal and prestigious race five times consecutively — a record Armstrong plans to break in 2004.

King de Lance

Armstrong

A look at Lance Armstrong's Tour de France career:

TOUR VICTORIES: Five straight from 1999-03, tying the record for consecutive wins set by Miguel Indurain of Spain (1991-95). Three others won five Tours, but not in a row — Jacques Anquetil of France (1957, 1961-64), Eddy Merckx of Belgium (1969-72, 1974), and Bernard Hinault of France (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985).

STAGE VICTORIES: 16 — one each in 1993, 1995, 2000, 2003; four each in 1999, 2001, 2002. His U.S. Postal Service team also won a time trial together this year. Merckx won a record 34 stages, Hinault 28, Anquetil 16, and Indurain 12.

WINNING MARGINS: Beat Alex Zulle of Switzerland by 7 minutes, 37 seconds in 1999, Jan Ullrich of Germany by 6:02 in 2000, Ullrich by 6:44 in 2001, Joseba Beloki of Spain by 7:17 in 2002, and Ullrich by 1:01 this year. The largest gap between the winner and runner-up in race history is nearly 3 hours — 2:59:21 to be exact — set by Maurice Garin of France in the first Tour in 1903. The smallest margin is 8 seconds, in Greg LeMond's victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989.

AGE: 31; Armstrong will turn 32 in September and plans to compete in the 2004 Tour. Since 1953, seven riders 31 or older have won. The oldest was Firmin Lambot of Belgium, 36 in 1922. Of the other five-time champions, only Indurain won at 31 — and that was the Spaniard's age for his final victory.

ENTRIES: This was Armstrong's ninth Tour de France. Joop Zoetemelk of the Netherlands raced in the most, 16.

PLACINGS: 1993-Did Not Finish; 1994-Did Not Finish; 1995-36th; 1996-Did Not Finish; 1997-Did Not Enter; 1998-Did Not Enter; 1999-1st; 2000-1st; 2001-1st; 2002-1st; 2003-1st.

— The Associated Press

"It's a dream, really a dream,'' Armstrong said in French after climbing the podium while "The Star-Spangled