Posted: Sunday July 24, 2005 4:25PM; Updated: Sunday July 24, 2005 4:25PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- For seven years, each July brought a distinct shade of yellow to Lance Armstrong's adopted hometown, from the "Go Lance" banners that hung from downtown balconies to the thousands of bright T-shirts that commemorated his Tour de France victories.
On Sunday, Armstrong's fan packed watch parties to see him ride into retirement with his seventh consecutive Tour win, and to bid him a grateful adieu.
"We're going to miss watching him," said Nesi Lillard, 31, one of several hundred who gathered at Central Market cafe to catch the live broadcast of the race's final day in Paris. "We're certainly proud to claim him."
Armstrong has no stronger fan base than in the capital of Texas, where locals can sometimes spot him eating in restaurants or on training rides in the hills west of town.
He was here in 1996, when he announced his diagnosis of testicular cancer that had spread to the lungs and brain. The Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and survivorship programs is based in the city.
There was little drama to Sunday's final stage. Armstrong started the day with a lead of more than four minutes. And he was declared the winner before the final stage had finished, when race officials took the riders off the clock because of rainy conditions.
The Central Market crowd gave a collective gasp when Armstrong barely avoided an early crash, but breathed easier when cameras showed him pedaling safely away.
"It would have been a real bummer if he'd have been messed up," said Mark Selover, 42, who was wearing a T-shirt commemorating Armstrong's 2001 tour victory, his third.
"It's really great he's going out on top," Selover said. "It's kind of sad this will be the last time we get to watch him. I wish I was there right now."
During the race, fans signed a huge yellow "Thank You" card sponsored by the Outdoor Life Network, which has broadcast each stage of the race. Standing 7 feet tall, the card was jammed with notes of appreciation after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Most of the notes congratulated Armstrong on his career, while others thanked him for being an inspiration to cancer survivors.
"I kicked cancer's butt, too," one note read.
A woman named Jenny in Philadelphia wrote "I love you" and put her phone number in three places.
"In a way, it's a little bittersweet that he's retiring," Pamela Willet, 40, said after she signed the card. "But I can't imagine what would give him the drive to go for it an eighth time."
While the crowd cheered every shot of Armstrong pedaling through Paris, the race also had a frustrating finish for fans when the broadcast signal was lost in the final minute. Instead of seeing him cross the finish line, the screen went blank until Armstrong was already finished, drawing a huge groan from the fans.
The mishap didn't spoil the day for Kristen Doyle, 33, who is still recovering from treatment for an aggressive form of leukemia, including a bone marrow transplant in April.
"It's kind of like he never finished," Doyle said. "If you can't see him finish, maybe he's not done."
But Armstrong is finished as a competitive rider, making Sunday an emotional day for cancer survivors, who like Doyle, have been inspired by his story.
Doyle, who wore a white LiveStrong T-shirt, said she's used Armstrong's example to explain to her 6-year-old son Cason that she can lick cancer, too.
"That really helped. Every night we talk about Lance and how's he doing," she said. "I'm a little sad we won't get to do this next year."
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