'It really takes it out of you'

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MIGUEL INDURAIN (pix, above) thinks Lance Armstrong is capable of winning a record sixth Tour de France. He should know. Until Armstrong's win on that Sunday, he was the only man to win five straight.

"Of course it's possible," the handsome 39-year-old Spaniard said, sipping coffee near the start line before Armstrong sped off to join him on the podium of cycling legends.

"But every year it gets more difficult, and he'll face some tough rivals," said Indurain, who from 1991-95 dominated the race that takes riders over thousands of kilometres, unforgiving mountains, scorching heat and treacherous descents.

But Indurain — who was virtually alone in predicting that Armstrong would successfully overcome cancer to clinch his first title in 1999 — warned that the Texan, who turns 32 in September, will find it difficult to stay as fit as he is now.

"Winning five Tours is a rare achievement. Cycling is harder than most sports," he said. "I can tell you, it really takes it out of you."

Indurain won his last Tour at age 31. He returned a year later to defend his crown, but overweight and lacking his usual power, only managed an 11th place finish.

"The training and the Tour leave you exhausted," he said, speaking in his native Spanish.

But given the fierce survival instinct Armstrong showed to beat cancer and keep his rivals at bay on the road, Indurain conceded the American may yet succeed where he failed.

French cycling giant Bernard Hinault also had words of admiration for Armstrong. "Armstrong's courageous, a fighter, somebody who perseveres until the end," said Hinault, who also racked up five Tour victories, though not consecutively.

Hinault — perhaps worried that his place in cycling history could be eclipsed by a sixth Armstrong Tour victory — refused to speculate on the Texan's chances.

Until Armstong's victory, only four riders had ever won the Tour five times — Indurain, Hinault, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and Belgium's Eddy Merckx. But the Spaniard was the only one to win five straight.

Indurain said he still ranks Merckx, who holds a slew of Tour records and for years competed in virtually every competition cycling had to offer throughout the 1970s, as the greatest of them all.

But that's no comfort to Armstrong's rivals, who see little choice but to wait for the Texas hero to wear out.

"The only way to beat Armstrong is to hope that his form diminishes," said Italy's Ivan Basso, who finished this year's Tour in seventh place overall.

"It can only happen with time. Up to now, he has left no room for anybody else on the Tour," said Basso.