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Lance Armstrong outduals Bonds for AP Male Athlete of the Year

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong knows there’s more to winning the Tour de France than just his muscular legs and amazing stamina. It takes some luck, too.
A crash, an ill-timed tire puncture and even sickness can doom a rider in the sport’s most grueling event.
“Anytime you have three weeks of open road, you need some luck,” said Armstrong, selected The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year of Thursday.
“One night you get some bad food, you can’t do anything the next day and you lose half an hour,” he said. “Knock on wood.”
If luck is the product of hard work, Armstrong should have plenty.
Armstrong has conquered everything in his path — including the cancer that spread from his testicles to his lungs and brain in 1996 — to four consecutive Tour de France titles.
He was given just a 50-percent chance to live and his amazing recovery and victories have earned him worldwide praise from sports fans and other cancer fighters.
Armstrong and Barry Bonds were the top two vote-getters for the AP award for a second straight year, only this time the San Francisco Giants’ slugger finished second.
Armstrong received 45 first-place votes and 292 points from writers and broadcasters. Bonds had 31 first-place votes and 233 points.
“Uh oh, hopefully he’s not mad,” Armstrong said. “It’s nice to be recognized.”
Tiger Woods, the winner in 1999 and 2000, finished third for the second year in a row. He received seven first-place votes and 110 points.
Armstrong takes advantage of the platform his comeback has given him to drive cancer-fighting campaigns. He started the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which funds cancer research and fills his rare free time with hospital visits and speaking at fund-raisers.
While he has no stump speech, his message is the same: Cancer made him the person he is today.
“When I came back, I said if I ever get a chance to do this, I’m going to give it everything. I’m going to train correctly, eat right. I’m not going to mess up,” he said. “That’s why I say all the time that the illness is the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I would never have won one Tour de France if I hadn’t had it. No doubt.”
Winning one Tour de France would have secured his place in cycling history. Capturing four in row put him among the greatest riders ever.
A victory in 2003 would tie the record of five. Spain’s Miguel Indurain (1991-95) is the only champion of five in a row. Armstrong raced in three of Indurain’s victories and holds the Spaniard in high regard.
“He was an incredible time trialist, the best that ever lived,” Armstrong said. “I can win a time trial today, but I would do it by seconds. He could win by a couple of minutes.”
Armstrong was a time-trial specialist himself before the cancer. It was during his recovery that he amazingly turned himself into a dominator in the punishing mountain stages, where his breakaways up steep climbs separate him from the rest of the pack.
Tour officials already have mapped out the course for the 2003 race, which will be the event’s 100-year anniversary, with additional mountain stages but fewer really steep climbs. That still bodes well for the 31-year-old Armstrong winning No. 5.
While he’s already eyeing a possible sixth title in ’04, Armstrong won’t be caught daydreaming.
“As you approach the mid 30s, it’s difficult to maintain a high level,” he said. “But I don’t feel weaker, I don’t feel less motivated, and the team is strong.
“I know what I’m doing in 2003, and I think I know what I’m doing in 2004. But after that, I don’t think about it.”
Away from his bike and his cancer-related work, Armstrong is a proud family man.
He met wife Kristin while still taking chemotherapy. Son Luke was born in 1999, when Armstrong won his first Tour de France. Twin girls Isabelle and Grace came along last year.
It’s his family, and the realization that he almost never had one, that drives Armstrong.
“Seeing your kids tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,” Armstrong said. “Look at this life like it’s a gift. That’s the way I try to view my life, my family — as a gift.”
A downside to his riding dominance is that it raised suspicions among French media and officials that Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team were doping.
Heckled by fans during last year’s race, Armstrong has repeatedly denied taking banned substances and has never failed a doping test. French authorities in September closed a two-year investigation because of a lack of evidence.
Cancer, however, ultimately gave Armstrong the thing he’s maybe most proud of: the label of survivor.
“Sports will come and go and I will be forgotten,” he said. “But something like the illness will never go. I’ll always have that tag.”