AUSTIN -- Even by his lofty standards, Lance Armstrong's
return to the mountaintop in 2004 was pretty special.
The question now facing Armstrong and his legion of fans is
whether he'll return to challenge the Pyrenees and the French Alps
again in 2005.
Already recognized as one of the truly inspiring athletes of his
generation, Armstrong took his cycling legacy a step further when
he won a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France in July.
And for his accomplishment, he was honored Monday as The
Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for the third straight
Armstrong joined Michael Jordan (1991-93) as the only athletes
selected by sports writers and broadcasters three straight times
since the honor was first awarded in 1931.
"For me it was a special year," Armstrong said. "It's always
nice to win the Tour, but this year was special simply because I
broke the record and made history."
Armstrong received 51 first-place votes and 312 total points.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was second with 17
first-place votes and 156 points.
The voting reflected Armstrong's return to dominating form in an
event where he separated himself so far from the pack there was
little question of the outcome.
In 2003, Armstrong struggled to win his fifth Tour de France,
capturing cycling's premier event and one of the world's most
grueling sporting events by a mere 61 seconds.
It was also the year he got divorced, and he acknowledged that
he struggled to balance the pressures of his personal and
Yet the 33-year-old Texan stormed back in 2004 with arguably his
best U.S. Postal Service team and his best individual performance
on the bike. He won five individual stages and a sixth with a team
time trial in France.
"I certainly feel like I recovered my true strengths. I haven't
felt as in control of a tour as this year," Armstrong said.
While other top riders and rivals such as Tyler Hamilton and Jan
Ullrich withered during the punishing race, Armstrong powered on.
Germany's Andreas Kloden, the Tour runner-up, got a close up
view of the American's strength in one of the hardest Alpine stages
when Armstrong sailed past him to win a sprint finish in the last
"No gifts this year," Armstrong said after the stage.
But as dominant as Armstrong was in France, he has yet to commit
to going for a seventh title next year. He promises to race again
in the Tour de France before he retires, but won't say if it will
be next year or 2006.
Armstrong says he's ready to pursue other challenges in racing.
He has dedicated most of his cycling life to the Tour, leaving
little room for such Classic races as the Spanish Vuelta, the
Paris-Roubaix or Fleche Wallone, which he won in 1996 shortly
before being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
But he also knows that it's the Tour de France his American fans
want to see him win.
"I could win the Tour of Flanders and I wouldn't win AP Athlete
of the Year," he said.
Armstrong and his team -- which has a new sponsor with the
Discovery Channel -- will release their schedule in January.
Armstrong won't say if he'll race the Tour de France until May.
Whatever his choice, it will be all or nothing. It won't be a
case of him riding to help someone else on his team win.
"If I'm going to ride, I'm riding to win. I'm not going to
suffer for three weeks not to win," he said. "I've gotten too
used to standing on the Champs Elysees at the end."
Armstrong had a big year off the bike as well. His personal life
spilled over onto the celebrity pages when his relationship with
rocker Sheryl Crow turned them into a star couple.
And his Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is dedicated to cancer
survivorship programs, got a monumental boost with the popularity
of its promotional "Livestrong" yellow wristbands.
Boosted by his most recent Tour victory, the foundation sold
nearly 30 million of the wristbands this year, spawning a fashion
trend that even made its mark on national politics. Democratic
nominee John Kerry sported one on the campaign trail, and President
George W. Bush has one, too.
"I plan on wearing mine for a long, long time," Armstrong
said, noting that he will always think of himself as a cancer
"We never set out to create a fashion statement, we simply set
out to make a statement and symbol for cancer survivors."