Tour de Lance VI

July 27, 2004

LANCE ARMSTRONG made winning the Tour de France look too easy. On Sunday, he rode into the history books, winning bicycle racing's most prestigious event more than six minutes ahead of his closest challenger. It was the sixth consecutive time he's won this grueling 2,000-mile trek across France. Mon dieu. An American is the king of France, or at least its cycling fans. Vive le roi.

Remember when it seemed so remarkable that American Greg LeMond could win this quintessentially European race? Then when a gaunt-looking cancer survivor from Texas could win it, too? When Mr. Armstrong, the star of the U.S. Postal Service team, won his fifth Tour and tied the record for victories last year, the magic seemed like it might have come to an end.

Mr. Armstrong had a tough time with his fifth, winning by a mere 61 seconds. Many racing fans were skeptical he could win again - none of the previous multiple champions had ever won after the age of 31. The doubts were erased by mid-July. Days before he rolled down the Champs Elysees, the 32-year-old's victory was assured. He didn't merely win - he dominated.

The biggest question facing Mr. Armstrong today is whether to enter the Tour next year. It's not that Mr. Armstrong doesn't want to race; it's more a matter of etiquette - is it appropriate to rack up more wins? Would it be overkill to go for eight or nine or 10? It's hard to imagine the Yankees or Celtics in their championship prime fretting about such a thing. But Mr. Armstrong understands his sport.

In Paris, the crowds cheered approvingly for the six-time winner despite the unproven doping allegations that still dog him. They cheered despite their anger toward U.S. foreign policy. And they cheered even though Mr. Armstrong had eclipsed their own champions of the past. Such was the appeal of one fiercely determined man who earned their respect. Yes, even the French can love a 21st century American.

Mr. Armstrong's single-minded focus on the Tour de France is legendary. It's said he knows every foot of the mountain stages by heart. He trains his body all year for this month-long event, but it's his heart that makes him unbeatable. Is he the greatest cyclist in history? The greatest athlete? Critics say he races too little to be compared to the all-time greats. But on the Tour, the most important race in his sport, Mr. Armstrong is now the undisputed all-time master. Vive la Lance!

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