- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

PARIS — One last time, “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out over the Champs-Elysees in honor of Lance Armstrong.

One last time, on the podium against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe, the cancer survivor who became the greatest cyclist in Tour de France history slipped into the leader’s yellow jersey.

Armstrong yesterday won the world’s most grueling race for an unprecedented seventh straight year, then walked off into retirement.

“Vive le Tour. Forever,” Armstrong said.

It was the end of an amazing career, and in retiring a winner, he achieved a rare feat in sports: going out on top. He said his decision was final and that he leaves with no regrets.

“I’m finished,” Armstrong told a motorcycle-borne TV reporter as he rode a victory lap of the Champs-Elysees, accompanied by another rider waving the Stars and Stripes.

Today, he’ll be on a beach in the south of France, “with a beer, having a blast,” he said.

Before that, though, he couldn’t resist a parting shot at “the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics” who suspect that doping fueled his dominance of the past seven years.

“I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is a [heck] of a race,” he said. “You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people.”

Race organizers afforded the 33-year-old Texan the unprecedented honor of speaking from the podium. And that came after an unusual ending to the overall race.

With the pavement slick from rain and Armstrong comfortably ahead, he was declared the winner with 30 miles to go. The rare decision was made to avoid a mad dash to the finish in treacherous conditions.

Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan eventually won the final stage, with Armstrong finishing safely in the pack to win the Tour by 4 minutes, 40 seconds over Ivan Basso of Italy. The 1997 Tour winner, Jan Ullrich, was third, 6:21 back.

“What he did was sensational,” Ullrich said.

President Bush called to congratulate his fellow Texan for “a great triumph of the human spirit,” saying the victory was “a testament not only to your athletic talent, but to your courage.”

Armstrong choked up on the podium, and rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow cried during the ceremony.

“This is the way he wanted to finish his career, so it’s very emotional,” she said.

Armstrong set the record last year with his sixth win — one more than Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Indurain — and No. 7 confirmed him as perhaps the greatest cyclist to date.

“In five, 10, 15, 20 years, we’ll see what the legacy is,” Armstrong said. “But I think we did come along and revolutionize the cycling part, the training part, the equipment part. We’re fanatics.”

Armstrong’s departure begins a new era for the 102-year-old Tour, which has no clear successor. His riding and his inspiring comeback from testicular cancer attracted new fans — especially in the United States — to the race, as much a part of French summers as suntan lotion, forest fires and traffic jams down to the Cote d’Azur.

Millions turned out each year — cheering, picnicking and sipping wine by the side of the road — to watch Armstrong flash past in the yellow jersey, the famed “maillot jaune.”

Some spectators would shout obscenities or “Dope.” To some, his comeback from cancer was too good to be true.

Armstrong insisted that he simply trained, worked and prepared harder than anyone. He was drug-tested hundreds of times — in and out of competition — but was never found to have committed any infractions.

Across France, fans urged Armstrong to go for an eighth win next year — holding up placards and daubing their appeals in paint on the road.

Armstrong, however, wanted to go out on top — and not let advancing age get the better of him.

“At some point, you turn 34, or you turn 35, the others make a big step up, and when your age catches up, you take a big step down,” he said Saturday after he won the final time trial, his only stage victory this year. “So next could be the year if I continued that I lose that five minutes. We are never going to know.”

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