Armstrong rides off as champion
Takes his 7th win in row, bows out at Tour de France
Lance Armstrong stands between Ivan Basso of Italy and Jan Ullrich of Germany on the podium after the final stage of the Tour de France. (Getty Images)
PARIS -- Lance Armstrong took a two-wheeler and transformed it in an extension of his fierce will. Then he created a winning template for an absurdly long, often frenzied bicycle race that tests the limits of human endurance and used it annually the way a tailor would cut out and assemble a summer suit.
He made the routine seem extraordinary and the extraordinary seem routine.
Armstrong's seventh Tour de France victory was an efficient piece of work won by decision as opposed to knockout. There was little competitive suspense and no percolating doping allegations, spectacular crashes, spitting fans, or open feuding with rivals, race officials, or reporters.
Armstrong beat cancer and went on to be a dominant force on the roads of Europe, then had to survive intense scrutiny during his post-illness run.
The 33-year-old Texan was his usual composed self during the lengthy podium ritual yesterday as he took the microphone and urged ''cynics and skeptics" to get behind cycling and its athletes, a not-terribly veiled reference to the doubts that have trailed him and the drug-plagued sport for many years.
''Vive le Tour," he said.
Armstrong's first Tour triumph in 1999 provoked astonishment. Subsequent victories brought escalating adulation, suspicion, and finally entrenched admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, Armstrong will leave for a vacation in the south of France with his three children and a group of intimates, including his companion, singer Sheryl Crow, kicking off what he says will be a more private phase of his life.
''An individual can never dictate their legacy," he said. ''That's not my job. It doesn't matter. Whatever the people decide it is, it is. I'm a kid from Texas that learned how to ride a bike fast and overcame a life-threatening illness to come back and win the hardest sporting event in the world seven times. So I'll let the other people write on the tombstone."
Vital as Armstrong is, facing death has always been his reference point. "I've always said I'm a lucky guy," he said a few days ago. ''I'm lucky just to be here."
His racing luck over the last 15,000-plus Tour miles is indisputable. He has been largely immune to the flat tires, wrecks, and radio static that afflict most riders at least once in a while -- although in a last irony, he nearly tumbled over a teammate who crashed on a wet road outside Paris yesterday.
Armstrong was in trouble during his Tour streak only a handful of times. The day in the Vosges mountains when he and his Discovery Channel team were caught off-guard in this Tour doesn't count as one of them.
The peloton split at the base of one of the first substantial climbs and Armstrong was isolated, but he proceeded to do just fine without his usual escort of teammates.
Five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault watched with his usual affectionate approval.
''Racing is not just win, win, win," Hinault said. ''It's controlling, managing.
''If the locomotive works well, the rest follows. The stage in the Vosges where the team was a little weak, he didn't panic. The rest of the time, the team has done what it had to . . . I think this year the rivals made the team work a little harder."
Armstrong had one winning day -- Saturday's individual time trial -- in contrast with the scorched-earth approach he took in his record-breaking sixth Tour win in 2004, when he won five of its 20 stages. Yet he wore the yellow jersey for 17 days in this Tour, more than in any of his other victories.
''It was a very technical, tactical win, almost antiseptic," said Jonathan Vaughters, Armstrong's former teammate.
Armstrong's eventual 4-minute-40-second-margin over Italy's Ivan Basso was his second-smallest of the septet, but still plenty big enough. It was built with the basics, as he related Saturday, recalling a conversation with his alter ego, Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel:
''Johan and I were sitting down one night, and he said, 'You know how many attacks it takes to win the Tour de France? One. One attack and two good time trials. Tour finished.' So we stuck with that protocol and it worked."
The opening time trial was won by promising young US rider Dave Zabriskie, but the real action took place three hours after Zabriskie's start. Armstrong, starting a minute behind longtime rival Jan Ullrich, motored past the German, who was still hurting from a training crash the day before.
That embarrassment didn't break Ullrich, who wound up finishing third overall, but it proved that Armstrong was back in top form after a jumbled early season.
Three days later, Discovery won its third straight team time trial by two seconds, partly owing to a late crash by Zabriskie of Team CSC. Armstrong announced that he would eschew wearing the yellow jersey the next day, saying that since ''nobody has ever taken the yellow jersey from a crash," neither would Team Discovery. But race officials -- beholden to the jersey's sponsor -- insisted on the leader's colors.
He relinquished the lead for a day to Jens Voigt, Zabriskie's teammate, but took it back again on the climb to the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel, although young Spanish star Alejandro Valverde sprinted away from him in the final yards.
Armstrong was shut out of a stage win in the Pyrenees, the mountains that decided the race for him so many times, but had the satisfaction of seeing two teammates, long-time friend George Hincapie and Tour of Italy winner Paolo Savoldelli, earn single-day victories for themselves.
Even yesterday's weather was muted -- overcast skies and intermittent rain that prompted race organizers to declare the overall standings fixed as the riders rolled up the slippery cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees on the first of eight finishing circuits. The sun did emerge for the award ceremonies.
Armstrong has said he intends to spend more time with his children and will remain heavily involved with his successful cancer foundation and as co-owner and keenly interested ex-franchise player of the Discovery team.
Some of his friends say they can't imagine how the chronically restless Armstrong will channel his considerable physical and competitive energy. He has been known to make surprise appearances at off-road bike races in the winter and said he might dust off his old triathlon skills or even try a marathon.
''My friends shouldn't worry," Armstrong said. ''I'll figure it out."
His pal Davis Phinney, the first US rider to win a road stage in the Tour almost 20 years ago, doesn't see him sitting still for long.
''I guarantee he's going to show up at little Tuesday night training races in Austin," Phinney said. ''Just because it's in his nature and he's already set the tone that he's not so big that he can't just show up. The engine wants to be fed, and he's got a space shuttle-sized engine. He needs hydrogen fuel."
''I think he'll find competition in other things," Hinault said. ''He knows what he's going to do. He's not worried. And when you're not worried, things are good."
Armstrong's trio of towheaded children accompanied him to the top step of the podium yesterday when he received his last leader's yellow jersey. Three-year-old twins Grace and Isabelle sashayed alongside him in buttercup-colored sundresses, while 5-year-old Luke demurred a bit before stepping out from behind his legs.
It was a soft, sentimental image -- just the kind French media and fans have clamored for over the years, complaining that Armstrong was an aloof champion.
Many things seemed different in his victory lap Tour. When Armstrong stepped away from the dais of his last formal press conference as a rider Saturday night, he was swarmed by reporters -- some of whom have been at odds with him for years -- who wanted him to autograph their media credentials.
Tour finished. Game over. No second places and no second thoughts about his dismount. ''As a matter of fact, I'm more convinced now than I've ever been," he said. ''Absolutely no regrets . . . I will live vicariously through the others."
Standing between Basso and Ullrich yesterday, Armstrong called it a ''dream podium to end my career" and gestured to each man in turn.
''Maybe this is your step," he said. ''I don't know. I'm out of it."