Lance Armstrong rode into history Sunday by winning the Tour de France for a record sixth time, an achievement that confirmed the Texas-born cancer survivor him as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.
His sixth crown in six dominant years elevated Armstrong above four great champions who won five times.
Armstrong finished Sunday's final stage safely in a pack behind the stage leaders.
Never in its 101-year-old history has the Tour had a winner like Armstrong , who just eight years ago was given less than a 50 percent chance of conquering a deadly form of testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.
Armstrong's unbeaten streak since 1999 has helped reinvigorate the greatest race in cycling, steering it into the 21st century. And the Tour, as much a part of French summers as languid meals over chilled rose, molded Armstrong into a sporting superstar.
No. 6. The record. The achievement was almost too much even for Armstrong to comprehend.
"It might take years. I don't know. It hasn't sunk in yet. But six, standing on the top step on the podium on the Champs-Elysees is really special," he said.
For him, Sunday's final ride into Paris and its famous tree-lined boulevard was a lap of honor he savored with a glass of bubbling champagne in the saddle. Even Jan Ullrich, his big adversary in previous years who finished off the podium for the first time this Tour, gulped down a glass proffered by Armstrong's team manager through his car window.
Belgian rider Tom Boonen won the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees, with Armstrong cruising safely behind with the trailing pack to claim his crown. Armstrong's winning margin over second-placed Andreas Kloden was 6 minutes and 19 seconds, with Italian Ivan Basso in third on 6:40.
Armstrong, recovered from the cancer diagnosed in 1996, opened a new page for the Tour in 1999 just one year after the race faced its worst doping scandal, ejecting the Festina team after police caught one of its employees with a stash of drugs.
Armstrong's victories and his inspiring comeback from cancer have drawn new fans to the race. His professionalism, attention to detail, grueling training methods and tactics have raised the bar for other riders hoping to win the three-week cycling marathon.
Eye-catching in the bright yellow race leader's jersey that he works so hard for, Armstrong donned a golden cycling helmet for Sunday's relaxed roll past sun-baked fields of wheat and applauding spectators into Paris from Montereau in the southeast.
He joked and chatted with teammates who wore special blue jerseys with yellow stripes. They stretched in a line across the road with their leader for motorcycle-borne photographers to record the moment. The team was the muscle behind Armstrong's win, leading him up grueling mountain climbs, shielding him from crashes and wind and keeping him stoked with drinks and foods.
With five solo stage wins and a team time trial victory with his U.S. Postal Service squad, this was Armstrong's best Tour. He built his lead from Day 1, placing second in the third-fastest debut time trial in Tour history.
That performance silenced doubts that Armstrong, at age 32, was past his prime. Even more so than in other Tours that he dominated, Armstrong finished off rivals in the mountains — with three victories in the Alps, including a time trial on the legendary climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, and another in the Pyrenees. He also took the final time trial on Saturday, even though he his overall lead was so big at that point that he didn't need the win.
"We never had a sense of crisis, only the stress of the rain and the crashes in the first week," Armstrong said Sunday. "I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better. Some of them just completely disappeared."
Basque rider Iban Mayo peaked too early when he beat Armstrong in the warm-up Dauphine Libere race three weeks before the Tour. Mayo crashed in the Tour's rain-soaked, nervous first week, racing toward a treacherous stretch of cobblestones that Armstrong crossed safely. Mayo finally abandoned after the Pyrenees, his morale shot after two disappointing rides in the mountains where he'd hoped to win in front of Basque fans.
Former Armstrong teammates Roberto Heras, left trailing in the mountains, and American Tyler Hamilton, badly bruised in a crash, also went home.
"The little guys, the pure climbers — Mayo, Tyler — the first week is very hard on them, always fighting for position, the wind. A lot of acceleration through villages at the finish. This becomes a problem for them after 10 days," said Armstrong. "That's the beauty of the Tour. If the race was 10 or 12 days long, they'd be much better. You have to do it all."
Ullrich, the 1997 champion and a five-time runner-up, never recovered from seeing Armstrong zoom into the distance for two straight days in the Pyrenees.
There, the only rider to stay with Armstrong was Basso, a 26-year-old with the makings of a future winner. He came out of the Alps, where Armstrong for the first time in his career won three consecutive stages, in second place overall.
But Kloden, the German champion and Ullrich's teammate, outdid the soft-spoken Basso in the final time trial, placing third behind Armstrong and Ullrich. That ride propelled Kloden, who did not complete last year's Tour, onto second spot on the podium, pushing Basso back to third.
"I never would have predicted Kloden before the Tour. But you could see he was really strong and skinny in the first week," said Armstrong.
Armstrong still hasn't decided whether he will back next year to compete in the race he loves above all others, for which he trains relentlessly, leaving his three children in Texas, with his former wife Kristin, while he pounds the roads in Europe.
"I don't know what I'll do next summer. I suspect I'll be here. It's too big of a race. My only hesitance is I think the people and the event perhaps need a change, new faces, a new winner," he said. "If I'm here, I race to win."
Seven wins would be like owning seven sports cars, nice but not necessary. Armstrong says he's interested in trying other races — the Tour of Italy, Classics, and beating the 1-hour cycling world record held by Britain's Chris Boardman.
After more than 3,000 kilometers (1,900) miles of racing, riders mostly took it easy on Sunday's 163-kilometer (101-mile) final stage, until they reached the crowd-lined Champs-Elysees. Some took souvenir photos of themselves as they rode and Armstrong even stopped by the side of the road momentarily to adjust his saddle.
He also chatted to Belgian rider Axel Merckx, whose father, Eddy, is one of the five-time champions Armstrong eclipsed. The others are Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.
Victory in France has brought Armstrong fame, wealth and softened some of the brashness he displayed as a young rider. He's picked up rudimentary French and says his love of the Tour won't end when he eventually retires.
"I'll definitely watch the Tour on TV, always," he said.
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