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August 01, 2005
Lance Armstrong added to his legacy as the greatest cyclist ever with his seventh straight victory in the Tour de France. What lies ahead for him--and his sport?
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August 01, 2005

A Grand Finale

Lance Armstrong added to his legacy as the greatest cyclist ever with his seventh straight victory in the Tour de France. What lies ahead for him--and his sport?

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Behold the naked man facedown on the massage table. Note the advanced farmer's tan. Consider, then discard, a conversational icebreaker along the lines of, "Hey, Lance, nice ass." � As long as they're on display, however, we might as well check out those glutes, those legs, the engines of the man determined to turn this same back on the sport he has owned for seven years. Take in the ledges of muscle in his quadriceps and calves. And what's with all these veins? Even his right rhomboid--the hump of muscle inside his shoulder blade--is popping veins. He's got veins on his abdomen, "veins on his veins," says his buddy Bart Knaggs. That's not normal, people. Nor is his face, hollowed out and hawklike. It is what Lance Armstrong calls his "Tour face," and we are seeing it for the last time. � He weighs 165 pounds--"As light as I'll ever be for the rest of my life," says the 33-year-old Armstrong, lifting his head from the table like a turtle. "Isn't that wild?" He is smiling and so relaxed, after 45 minutes of kneading and pummeling at the hands of Ryszard Kielpinski, a Discovery Channel team masseur, that his speech is mildly slurred.

This is not a soul in conflict, a man racked by doubt. As he closed in on his seventh straight Tour de France victory, to be followed by The Rest Of His Life, Armstrong exhibited zero misgivings about his decision to retire the moment he stepped down from the podium on the Champs-�lys�es on Sunday. Considering his performance in the race, which he won by a comfortable 4:40 over Ivan Basso of Italy and CSC, he could have been forgiven a few second thoughts.

If the 92nd Tour de France had been a football game, Armstrong would have won it, say, 9-3. He attacked his rivals exactly once, the day the race entered the mountains. The time he gained that day, and in the individual time trials that bookended this Tour, was enough to seal his status as bike racing's Jim Brown, ensuring that he would go out on top. He spent much of this farewell Tour in a prevent defense. Though he smiled and joked on the bike more than he ever had--"Lance got a little more relaxed, a little nicer, every year," said Spanish rider Carlos Sastre--he was tired and ready to stop suffering for a living.

"It's stressful trying to win the Tour de France," Armstrong said. "Stressful trying to get ready, stressful trying to stay safe. Remember, this isn't cricket. Guys get killed."

While seldom exhibiting the dominance that marked his victory in last year's Tour, during which he won six stages, Armstrong enjoyed his share of alpha moments over the last three weeks, foremost among them The Catch. His victim, as usual, was Jan Ullrich, who won the '97 Tour at age 23 but whose career since then has been defined by his losses to the Texan and by his self-destructive behavior--the off-season weight gains, the arrest for drunken driving and suspension for recreational drug use. Ullrich, once Armstrong's chief rival, had devolved into something less formidable: a foil.

Now, halfway through the Tour's first stage, a 19-kilometer time trial on the Atlantic coast, bad news came through the German racer's earpiece: Armstrong, who'd rolled down the ramp a minute after him, was closing. Ullrich, one of the strongest riders in the world, had never been overtaken in a time trial. Here he was, on a flat, straight course that favored him--and losing ground to a man two years older who'd gotten a late start on his Tour preparation. A mile or so later Armstrong blew Ullrich's doors off, passing him on the right without so much as a glance, a figurative neutering from which Ullrich never recovered.

The Catch has already taken its place on the highlight reel of Armstrong gooseflesh moments, alongside The Detonations (his demolition of the peloton on the slopes of Sestri�re in '99 and on the switchbacks of Mont Hautacam a year later), The Bluff (after feigning distress during the Alpe d'Huez stage in '01, a suddenly chipper Armstrong rocketed away from everyone on the final climb) and The Detour (across a grassy slope to avoid a fallen rider in '03). What we witnessed in this Tour were the final innings of one of the greatest careers in the history of sports. Armstrong didn't just win; he won in a certain way, with the same commodity that John Updike attributed to Ted Williams: an "intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy."

He knows that by walking away now, he is leaving a Tour victory or two unclaimed. He's cool with that. "Why race again?" he asks. "There's no history in it." No one else has won this race more than five times. To go for eight, Armstrong feels, would be piling on. It would be greedy. "Money doesn't matter," he continues. ( Armstrong, who made at least $17 million last year, has 10 or so speeches lined up over the next few months at $50,000 a pop.) Nor, he adds, does he need more "fame or attention." What he does crave, like a drug, is time with his three children: five-year-old Luke and three-year-old old twins Grace and Isabelle, who joined him on the podium in Paris.

A favorite parlor game at this year's Tour was guessing what Armstrong will do when his life truly is no longer about the bike. "The problem with politics," he says, addressing the rumor that he will someday run for office in the Lone Star State, "is that it's not so far from what I do now. You get put up there, and people throw stuff at you. I don't like that. And you can't throw back."

"His mission for the next six months or year," says his girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, using a metaphor befitting a songwriter, "will be to spend as much time as possible drinking up his children's love."

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