Armstrong rules

Five-time Tour de France winners (from left): Bernard Hinault of France, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, Lance Armstrong of the U. S. and Miguel Indurain of Spain. Armstrong won his fifth consecutive Tour de France title in July this year. — Pic. AP-Five-time Tour de France winners (from left): Bernard Hinault of France, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, Lance Armstrong of the U. S. and Miguel Indurain of Spain. Armstrong won his fifth consecutive Tour de France title in July this year. — Pic. AP

Lance Armstrong's victory was a fitting end to the centennial edition of the Tour de France that was a perfect mix of drama, excitement and courage.

LANCE ARMSTRONG joined cycling's most select club with his fifth successive Tour de France victory and Mario Cipollini won his 42nd Giro d'Italia stage as the record books were rewritten in 2003.

But the sport also mourned the deaths of riders Denis Zanette, Andrei Kivilev and Fabrice Salanson.

Armstrong's victory was a fitting end to a centennial edition of the Tour that was the perfect mix of drama, excitement and courage.

The American cancer survivor became the fifth man to win the race five times, joining France's Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spain's Miguel Indurain.

"It's a great feeling when someone like Hinault comes to you on the podium to say `welcome to the club,'" said Armstrong, who beat German Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds overall for his narrowest Tour victory.

The U.S. Postal leader had been hot favourite before the three-week race but Armstrong suffered and struggled like never before.

He was ill before the prologue, which he finished a disappointing ninth, and was involved in a mass crash at the end of stage one.

Dehydration took its toll on the first time trial, which he lost in spectacular fashion by 96 seconds to Ullrich, who almost did not make the Tour after his Team Coast was suspended in May for non-payment of riders' salaries.

But having assembled a makeshift team under the colours of cycling manufacturer Bianchi, the 1997 Tour winner found his form after a year out because of injury and a doping suspension.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse for Armstrong when he fell on the climb to Luz-Ardiden after a spectator's bag got caught in his handlebars.

But like a true champion, the Texan picked himself up and won the stage with a breathtaking ride, helped by the other American hero of the Tour, Tyler Hamilton.

Italian Mario Cipollini rode into the history books with 42 Giro d'Italia stage career victories. -- Pic. MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES-

Hamilton, riding with a broken collarbone after crashing in stage one, signalled for the group of favourites to slow down for Armstrong.

Ullrich's title challenge ended in the rain on the penultimate day when he crashed during the time trial but he reaffirmed himself as Armstrong's main rival.

"For the spectators it was an incredible three weeks," said Armstrong. "I'd prefer not to have all the drama like this year."

France's Richard Virenque won his sixth King of the Mountains title while Baden Cooke snatched the green points jersey from fellow Australian Robbie McEwen on the final day. Cipollini had predicted he would equal Alfredo Binda's 70-year-old record for Giro wins on the first stage of the Italian race but he kept the home fans waiting.

The Italian was outsprinted by compatriot Alessandro Petacchi on the opening day in May.

Petacchi won six stages in total and proved himself to be cycling's hottest sprinter by becoming the first man in 45 years to record stage victories in the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta in the same year.

Cipollini finally rode into the history books with wins on stages eight and nine to notch up 42 Giro career victories.

But his joy at the record was soured by the decision of Tour organisers not to offer his Domina Vacanze team a wildcard invitation to their race. "(Tour director) Jean-Marie Leblanc makes me want to vomit," he said.

Riding a pink bike to celebrate, Gilberto Simoni won the Giro in sweet revenge for his ignominious exit the previous year following two separate positive tests for cocaine.

He had been cleared of doping by the Italian Cycling Federation who accepted that the drug was present in some coca sweets his aunt had given him.

In contrast to the previous two years, when the Giro struggled with a drug-tainted image, there were no positive dope tests during the race.

Roberto Heras won his second Tour of Spain title in September, ahead of the unheralded Isidro Nozal who surprised everyone, including himself, by wearing the leader's jersey for much of the race.

Italy's Paolo Bettini retained his World Cup crown while Briton David Millar won the time trial and Igor Astarloa of Spain the road race at the world championships in October.

The sport lost three active riders in 2003. Italian Zanette died of a heart attack in January after having his teeth cleaned at the dentist and French cycling hope Salanson was found dead in his hotel room shortly before the start of the Tour of Germany in June.

Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev died from head wounds sustained in a crash during April's Paris-Nice race.

Kivilev's Cofidis team doctor said that a helmet might have saved the rider's life and following the tragedy the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced that wearing helmets would become compulsory from January.

Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov went on to win the Paris-Nice race, dedicating the victory to his friend.