Armstrong Wins His First Tour de France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1999, Lance Armstrong completed a comeback from cancer to win his first of what would become a record seven consecutive Tours de France. His victory in the bicycle race not only helped the sport recover from devastating doping scandals of 1998 but also inspired countless cancer survivors.

Summary of Event

Lance Armstrong ranks among the most famous athletes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His fame derives not only from having won seven consecutive Tour de France bicycle races but also from the fact that his success in the race came after nearly dying from cancer. Less than three years before the start of the 1999 Tour, Armstrong had extensive surgery and chemotherapy to treat advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, brain, and abdomen. His doctors gave him a poor prognosis for survival. Sports;bicycle racing Tour de France Bicycle racing [kw]Armstrong Wins His First Tour de France (July 25, 1999) [kw]First Tour de France, Armstrong Wins His (July 25, 1999) [kw]Tour de France, Armstrong Wins His First (July 25, 1999) Sports;bicycle racing Tour de France Bicycle racing [g]Europe;July 25, 1999: Armstrong Wins His First Tour de France[10430] [g]France;July 25, 1999: Armstrong Wins His First Tour de France[10430] [c]Sports;July 25, 1999: Armstrong Wins His First Tour de France[10430] Armstrong, Lance Bruyneel, Johan Zülle, Alex Virenque, Richard

Up to the time of his diagnosis, Armstrong had an impressive cycling career, specializing in long one-day races over relatively flat or gently undulating terrain. He began professional cycling in 1992, following a successful career as a junior triathlete. In 1993, he won the World Road Cycling Championship in Norway and later took wins in a number of major one-day races and stages in longer stage races, including a stage in each of the 1993 and 1995 Tours de France. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, however, Armstrong was not considered a serious contender in major multiday races like the Tour de France, particularly if there were mountains involved. The first indications that his style of riding had changed as a result of his cancer treatment came with his win in the relatively small Tour de Luxembourg in the late summer of 1998 and a fourth place overall later that year in the mountainous Vuelta España (the Tour of Spain), one of only three Grand Tours on the racing calendar.

The 86th Tour de France started on July 3, 1999, without any clear favorite. Past champions from the preceding three years, Marco Pantani (suspension), Jan Ullrich (injury), and Bjarne Riis (injury) were unable to start. The fallout from a major doping scandal at the 1998 Tour and other doping incidents earlier in 1999 prevented many other high-profile riders from participating. Few considered Lance Armstrong to be a serious contender even to finish as the highest-placed American in the race, let alone the overall winner. Those who picked favorites focused on Abraham Olano, Olano, Abraham the world time trial champion from Spain; Alex Zülle of Switzerland, who was returning to the sport after serving a doping suspension for his role with the Festina team in the 1998 Tour; Bobby Julich, Julich, Bobby the 1998 third-place finisher from the United States; Michael Boogerd, Boogerd, Michael the leader of the Dutch Rabobank team; Ivan Gotti, Gotti, Ivan two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy); and Richard Virenque of France, who would later serve a lengthy suspension for doping during the 1998 Tour.

Armstrong’s surprising win resulted from careful preparation, sound race tactics, and more than a little good luck. The race began, as it usually does, with a short time trial—a race in which each rider starts at an assigned time and is clocked individually, with the win going to the rider with the lowest elapsed time over the course. Armstrong was a surprise winner of that stage, beating out Zülle and Olano in second and third positions, respectively. The victory by the cancer survivor, who would wear the leader’s yellow jersey the next day on July 4 (American Independence Day), gave the press and the Tour organizers something to report on other than doping scandals.

The race continued with a series of relatively flat mass-start stages that were not expected to have any major affect on the overall race. Those expectations, however, were disappointed on the second such stage. The race on July 5 took the riders along the Atlantic coast and, at one point, across a narrow cobblestone causeway (the “Passage du Gois”) that is passable only at low tide. Armstrong’s team’s director, Johan Bruyneel, had advised Armstrong to be near the front of the bunch when the race arrived at the causeway. When the race hit the causeway a series of chaotic crashes split the race up. By the end of the stage, Zülle, Boogerd, and Gotti all lost more than six minutes to Armstrong as a result of having been caught behind the crashes on the Passage du Gois.

Armstrong consolidated his advantage over the other contenders for the overall race lead in the first long time trial on stage 8, beating Zülle by nearly a minute and Olano by more than two minutes. It was on stage 9, however, the first mountain stage of the race, that Armstrong sealed his victory.

U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong rides past the Arc de Triomphe during the final stage of the Tour de France on July 25, 1999.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On a cold and rainy July 13, the ninth stage of the race took the riders into the Alps over five mountain passes, including the famed Col du Galibier and across the border to finish in Sestrieres, Italy. Armstrong not only preserved his lead over his rivals but also won the stage and put further time between himself and all challengers. By doing so, he clearly established that he was a much more versatile rider than the one-day racer he had been prior to his illness.

Bruyneel’s tactical savvy preserved Armstrong’s lead over the remaining mountain stages. Indicative of the style of racing that was to characterize each of his subsequent Tour victories, and having established a lead early in the mountains, Armstrong kept his teammates close by and his rivals in sight, riding just hard enough to ensure that no one could open up a lead and get time back on him. By conserving his energy through the remaining stages, Armstrong was able to win the third and final time trial on the penultimate day of the Tour and finish comfortably in Paris in the yellow jersey with a 7-minute-and-37-second advantage over second-placed Alex Zülle.

Significance

Armstrong has leveraged the success of his first Tour victory to bring greater attention to the cause of advocating for rights to information and treatment options for cancer patients. In 1997, he established the Lance Armstrong Foundation with the goal to provide practical information to people with cancer and to expand access to clinical trials of experimental therapies. He has chronicled his experience as a cancer survivor and champion of patient rights in two best-selling autobiographies.

In 2006, French newspaper L’Équipe published a report that alleged that urine samples linked to Armstrong that had been collected during the 1999 Tour de France and stored for research purposes had revealed indications of use of the banned performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin (or EPO). Other vague allegations of drug use have dogged Armstrong throughout his career and retirement. Former teammates have served doping suspensions or admitted having taken performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong has consistently denied using performance-enhancing drugs and has never failed a drug test. He has been consistently successful in a series of lawsuits against those who have made doping allegations against him.

Armstrong’s seven consecutive overall victories in the Tour de France is one of the most spectacular achievements in endurance athletics. Four other riders had managed five wins (in the case of Miguel Indurain, consecutively), but before Armstrong, none had succeeded in their attempts for a sixth win. Despite Armstrong’s impressive achievements and celebrity, bicycle racing has remained a fringe sport in North America even as it grew in popularity elsewhere (for example, in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Australia).

Armstrong’s athletic success and personal story have brought worldwide attention and funding to the cause of cancer patient rights. In 2003, the Lance Armstrong Foundation raised more than ten million dollars for programs for cancer patients and survivors through, among other means, the sale of millions of yellow silicone wristbands stamped with the slogan “Livestrong.” Sports;bicycle racing Tour de France Bicycle racing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Lance, with Sally Jenkins. Every Second Counts. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Sequel to Armstrong’s first autobiography that focuses on fatherhood, doping allegations, and his marriage breakdown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. It’s Not About the Bike. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000. First-person account of Armstrong’s diagnosis and recovery from cancer together with a detailed account of the 1999 race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coyle, Daniel. Lance Armstrong’s War. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Sports journalist’s review of Armstrong’s career including a balanced account of the claims of Armstrong’s detractors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dauncey, Hugh, and Geoff Hare, eds. The Tour de France, 1903-2003. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2003. Collection of scholarly essays that provide a historical and cultural context to Armstrong’s achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Christopher S. The Tour de France: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Scholarly history of the race from its founding to 2005.

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