Lance Armstrong meets the press before Paris, looks back on another great race and refuses to be draPICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Lance Armstrong kept the world's cycling media waiting before turning up for what has become the traditional, yellow-jersey-clad press conference on the eve of Sunday's processional final stage into Paris. No doubt he was held up shaking hands and kissing cheeks, but there were smiles and congratulations all round as he appeared in the press centre with his US Postal directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, with his now all-too-familiar bodyguards not too far away. And so, the questions began. "This one is very, very special," Armstrong said when asked how this sixth victory compared to his first Tour win. "I was shocked to win in 1999, and I never thought then that I'd win a second. And in 2000 I didn't think I'd win a third. But it's very special to be on the verge of a sixth win. But I'm humbled by this race. It's different every year, and it's always special." Compared to last year, when ill health and crashes had him struggling to win his fifth Tour ahead of Jan Ullrich, this year's victory has been much smoother. "I haven't had the same problems as last year. It's been black and white this year," said the Texan. "It probably is the funnest year I've had riding a bike. I raced in America this year, too [at the Tour of Georgia], where I contested and won a sprint. I'm enjoying competing more than ever. Winning in sprints, and finding myself in intense situations - it's something I've not really done before." Perhaps not the intense situations that Armstrong was referring to, but there have been moments in this year's race when he thought that the roadside spectators were a little too close for comfort. "Alpe d'Huez should have had barriers all the way up it," Armstrong suggested. "Some of the spectators were a little animated, but Jacques Anquetil was booed. Merckx, too, so it's OK being in that kind of company. "People boo, but what do they want? Do they want a champion who doesn't work hard? It doesn't make sense for them to cheer a rider who was involved in the biggest doping case in cycling," Armstrong said, catching everyone by surprise, but leaving people in little doubt that he was referring to French darling Richard Virenque. Despite his involvement in the 1998 Festina doping affair, Virenque remains as popular with the French public as ever, and this year claimed a record seventh King of the Mountains title. "And don't boo me, and then, when I look at you, start clapping," was Armstrong's message to the roadside 'fans'. "These people seem to like the rider who's second more than the rider who's first. But if I have to take it, then so be it. And the majority of people are very supportive. I understand that it's all part of the sport." Speculation has been rife in the last couple of days that this Tour, with a sixth victory, could be his last. "I've got no 2005 schedule yet. I need to finish this race safely first. Then we'll sit down and decide," Armstrong said. "But make no mistake: this is the biggest bike race in the world. It's the one I love the most. I can't imagine skipping it, but if I wasn't coming to it with the best possible condition, I wouldn't come. But I can't imagine not being here." Perhaps other projects, besides the Tour de France, could feature in that 2005 schedule. "I have said that I'd like to ride the Giro d'Italia before I stop," said Armstrong. "But I'd also like to do the Worlds again. And I'd also like to do the hour record. But time's running out." At 32 years old and a 33rd birthday just a couple of months away, Armstrong is certainly not showing any signs of slowing down. "I think that the man that works the hardest is the man who deserves to win. But, as it's hard to convince people of that, that's what motivates me," Armstrong said, defiantly. "Tonight [Saturday] we're staying in a chteau. We've got one big room for all the team and all the staff, and we'll all eat together and maybe drink a bit of wine. "When you're out training for six hours in the rain, that's no fun," he smiled. "There's no one cheering you on - OK, there's no one booing you either - but that training is for moments like tonight." And is it that kind of training that makes him so good? "I think, in fact, I know, that it's a mix of talent and hard work. Many people ask how it can be possible. But it's easy to derive sensational answers," Armstrong said. "What are you doing on Christmas Day? What are you doing on January 1? Riding your bike? Yeah! It's full commitment. But it's not just me - it's the whole team. My relationship with Johan lasts 365 days a year. We speak every single day. It's all hard work."