Armstrong wins Tour de France
By Michael McDonough
Associated Press Writer
PARIS On this day of little suspense, there was one bit of drama at the Tour de France.
American Lance Armstrong celebrates his victory in "the most special race in the world."
With the majestic Arc de Triomphe behind him, Armstrong listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and smiled with satisfaction as he savored an end to three weeks of grueling racing to win his third straight Tour title the only American to do so.
His leader's yellow jersey was lost in the main pack as he crossed the finish line, but the man from Austin, Texas, already had shown he's in a class of his own having survived life-threatening cancer to master the world's toughest cycling race.
Only a terrible accident could have kept him from the winner's stand, given the insurmountable lead he had built in the mountains a week earlier.
"It's the best feeling of the last three (wins)," Armstrong said in faltering French. "As always, I am happy to finally arrive, to finally finish the Tour. It's a special feeling."
His ride to victory with a lead of almost 7 minutes had been in some ways the most impressive of all three wins. Because this time, the field that he crushed so definitively, including top rival Jan Ullrich, was in top form.
French fans, who favor their own cycling heroes and find Armstrong somewhat distant, could not hide their admiration for Armstrong's achievement.
"He's untouchable, it's true," said 43-year-old Dominique Maquet, who came to Paris from the Ardennes region near Belgium to watch the finish under a scorching July sun. "Some French people might be jealous, because he's so good. But he won because he's all powerful."
"Perfect," said Pierre Couturier, a 53-year-old postman from Normandy, giving the thumbs-up sign. "Armstrong totally deserved it."
"Armstrong was magnificent," said 25-year-old Arnaud Blais of Paris after yesterday's finale. "It would have been nice for someone French to win, but they aren't strong enough."
Armstrong both began and finished his race in the mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, where he reached perfection.
His most memorable triumph came in the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, where he bluffed Ullrich and others by grimacing in apparent pain for the TV cameras. With his fellow riders thinking he was in trouble, he caught Ullrich, took a long, hard look, then pulled ahead at stunning speed. He finished 1:59 ahead of the German and set the tone for the entire race.
After cementing his lead in the Pyrenees, gaining the coveted yellow jersey at the top of Pla d'Adet, he further tightened his grip in the flat stretches by winning the last individual time-trial.
Ullrich, who was riding in his best form since he won the Tour in 1997, was left trailing by 6 minutes, 44 seconds, a deficit that he carried with him to the finish line.
Like Armstrong, U.S. cyclist Greg LeMond has won the race three times, but with a two-year gap between his first and second titles.
The Tour record is five titles, but for now Armstrong says he isn't interested.
"I'm not chasing a record," he said in his final news conference on Saturday. "I never thought I would get to this point.
"It was a surprise for me even to make it back to the sport," he added, referring to his comeback from advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.
Unlike previous editions of the Tour, this one was almost free of doping scandals. Questions did arise over Armstrong's working relationship with an Italian doctor whose name has been linked to doping. He again denied he's used banned substances, and said he would review his relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari.
In the only other incident, Spanish rider Txema Del Olmo was dropped from the race by his team after testing positive to what his squad called "abnormalities."
Czech rider Jan Svorada won Sunday's stage, the 20th of a more than 2,100-mile ride through France and Belgium.
With Ullrich in second place overall and Spaniard Joseba Beloki third, the finish was identical to last year's. It was only the second time in Tour history that the same riders have finished 1-2-3 in consecutive years.
"It was one of the funner victories I've had here," Armstrong said. "Definitely the strongest I've ever been, stronger than the previous two."
But there's more to come.
"I have a lot left," he said. "I love it. I love what I do. As long as the passion is there, I'll be around for years."
As for Armstrong winning over the hearts of the French well, not yet.
"Arch-dominator," the daily Parisien newspaper called him recently. "Armstronginator," said the sports daily L'Equipe.
For his part, Armstrong has tried to warm to the crowds by speaking a mildly mangled form of French in TV interviews.
"This year I've decided to try what I can," he says of his linguistic efforts. "I've decided to be more accessible to the people and the media."
Armstrong is, indeed, treated more respectfully by the French media now than during his first Tour victory. Then, despite his moving story, some French headlines used double meanings to show disbelief that he could ride so well without the help of banned drugs.
"Hallucinating," said one.
This year, Armstrong received mostly favorable press. French TV commentators noted that Armstrong made some classy gestures during this year's race, including waiting for Ullrich when the German fell off his bike during a mountain stage.
The chief editor at L'Equipe, Jerome Bureau, explains that the French "like champions who can crack. Armstrong shows no weakness."
And, he said, the cyclist's image is changing: "Armstrong is becoming part of the great history of this race."