Seven-time Tour champ also master at picking the perfect time to quit


July 25, 2005|By Bob Ford | Bob Ford,THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PARIS - It is the rare athlete who can climb the mountain of history, breathe the thin, giddying air of fame, and still make a graceful descent down the other side of that slippery slope.

Lance Armstrong has pulled off the first two tricks - winning a record seven Tour de France championships after surviving a death struggle with cancer - and now he will attempt the difficult dismount.

Others have tried and failed. Michael Jordan retired and came back, retired and came back, making his final farewell an anticlimax, whenever it was. Steve Young took too many blows to the head, as did Muhammad Ali. Steve Carlton gave up too many home runs in too many unfamiliar uniforms. Eric Lindros is still skating into too many unfriendly corners.

Saying goodbye is difficult, especially when it means saying goodbye to your youth. But for Armstrong, who rode triumphantly into Paris again yesterday, time, fame and history are slightly different than for the rest of us.

"There's no reason to continue," he said Saturday, after wrapping up his retirement present and assuring that yesterday's final stage, which proceeded through a steady drizzle, was nothing more than a ceremonial procession for the leader. "I don't need more. It's time for a new face. It's time for a new story. I have no regrets."

Comparing Armstrong's accomplishments with those of other athletes is always a difficult business because his sport of road racing on a bicycle is unique and because his particular story won't be replicated.

Seven victories in the greatest bike race in the world surpasses the achievements of even the most legendary cyclists. Is it also greater than 755 home runs for Hank Aaron or 197 touchdown catches for Jerry Rice? More impressive than 894 goals for Wayne Gretzky or 11 championships for Bill Russell? Silly to even ask, really. Does a shark swim better than a leopard runs?

Armstrong successfully bore a number of burdens before reaching the exit door yesterday on the Champs-Elysees. Fittingly enough, the sun came through at the end of the rainy afternoon and Armstrong's last climb of the podium was washed in its yellow glow.

He got there by coming back from a cancer that reduced his chance for survival to less than a 50-50 proposition. He remade his body upon his return and remade his competitive personality, too. Where once he was an impetuous hothead who needed to contest every attack, he became a tactical master of his game.

He chose the Tour de France as his annual focus because it was the biggest and the best prize and has dominated it while often operating in a hostile environment. His remarkable, sustained success was met with suspicion because bike racing has long had a doping problem, but he always tested clean. He rode steadily through crowds that were virulently anti-American on occasion and chose to mention instead the French people who stood on the side of the road, waved American flags and said: "Allez, Lance."

And did he go. Up the mountains, over the flats, bent low during the time trials, meeting every challenge until there were none left that mattered. He could probably come back next year and do it again, but what would be the purpose?

"At some point, the others make a big step up, and when your age catches up with you, you take a big step down," said Armstrong, who turns 34 in September. "Next year could be the year - if I continued - that I lose five minutes. We'll never know.

"It wouldn't be fair to next year's winner to say, `Well, you're lucky I didn't show up. You're lucky I retired.' I'm not going to say that. Let's watch the race next year and let the champion be the champion. Let them start a new streak."

He's had enough of his streak and the pressure of keeping it going. He has also carried the pressure of representing millions of people who are sick or who love people who are sick, those who crowded around the bus every day just to be close to him, those who just wanted a touch, a word, a smile.

"That would wear on anybody," he said. "I was lucky enough to live and lucky enough to find my way here and lucky enough to win seven. I have to take that part of the job in stride. I just try to be the example of the person that was lucky and believed he would get better and believed he would make it back to life."

A tough enough role for a saint, but Armstrong is more than a two-dimensional poster boy. He still has a lot of Texas hell-raiser in him, and that will probably become more apparent once he is released from the training strictures of his demanding sport. This guy is going to have some laughs, risk his neck in cyclo-cross races, and eat a good deal of barbecue.

"My intention is not to remain a public figure for the next few years," he said. "I need a period of quiet and peace and privacy."

All athletes get left alone eventually, but not always by choice. Armstrong, who majored in perspective at the University of Near-Death, understands that part of the game, too.

"I'm no fool," he said. "I know people forget about sports people. There's a new face, a new name, and a new story in a year or two. I know my time is up."

And that might make him the rarest of them all.

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