Cyclist Lance Armstrong took Paris by storm Sunday, winning his third straight Tour de France and establishing himself as the dominant figure in his sport and one of the top athletes in the world today.
When he whizzed down the sunny Champs Elysees on Sunday afternoon and crossed the finish line near the Tuileries Gardens, the 29-year-old Texan became only the fifth rider to win France's epic race three years in a row. He completed the three-week, 2,146-mile event in 86 hours 17 minutes 28 seconds, beating Jan Ullrich of Germany by 6 minutes 44 seconds.
Framed by the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and holding his team cap to the breast of his yellow winner's jersey, Armstrong stood at attention for "The Star-Spangled Banner," shook hands with Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and held his trophy aloft.
"The sensation is more beautiful, bigger, stronger than the last time," he told reporters in workmanlike French. "The Tour de France is the most beautiful, the greatest, the most special race in the world for me and also for the United States."
Thronging cafes, balconies, rooftops and even the sky decks of the Eiffel Tower, crowds filled resplendent central Paris to watch the Tour's 20th and final stage, which began in the village of Corbeil-Essonnes, about 100 miles away.
Armstrong's three-peat stirred awe among riders and fans, who included a number of Americans wearing U.S. flags as capes and head scarves. They marveled at his stamina, his mental toughness, the strength of his honed 155-pound frame. Only five years ago, he overcame testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain and required surgery and intensive chemotherapy.
"I tried everything to seek out the slightest weakness, but Lance didn't have any," said Ullrich, who came in second in last year's competition as well. "This year he is stronger than ever. Simply unbeatable."
Third Win Gives Rise to Thoughts of a Fourth
Amid the euphoria, Armstrong's thoughts turned inevitably to next year and a possible fourth triumph. The hero of the American team, which is sponsored by the U.S Postal Service, has closed in on an elite group of champions who are five-time winners of the Tour. The only other U.S. winner, Greg LeMond, also triumphed three times--but not consecutively.
"I love my job. I love my profession," Armstrong said. "The fourth time is my top objective."
As in the past two years, Armstrong's easy dominance provoked contradictory attitudes here, reflecting a larger ambivalence toward the United States among Europeans and the French in particular. But the laconic Texan shrugged off occasional derogatory whistles from roadside spectators and kept his cool during news conferences that resembled prosecutorial cross-examinations.
Armstrong displayed the serenity of a world-class athlete approaching his peak, according to his spokesman, Bill Stapleton.
"The speculation is already starting," Stapleton said. "Can he win five? Can he win six? No one has done that. This year was the exclamation point. He's growing into the role every day--he's a master champion. I think he's moving into that group of top athletes with Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods."
Nonetheless, resentment toward Armstrong tinged the monthlong national conversation surrounding one of France's most cherished, and fiercely hyped, annual events.
Critics called Armstrong aloof, mechanical and businesslike. News photographers named him the least cooperative of the cyclists in the competition. The media coverage featured snide comments--"our Cary Grant of the bicycle" was one example--and pointed allusions to his team of handlers and his watchful bodyguard, a kick-boxing champion.
"You can't please all of the people all of the time," Armstrong responded. "But I know I gave 100%."
Suspicions of Drug Use Hover Over Riders
And once again, he and the other riders withstood suspicions about an issue that remains the cloud over this summertime celebration of talent, endurance and the French landscape: drugs.
This year's blast of insinuation and accusation came early this month after a report in a British newspaper about Armstrong's relationship with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who faces trial in Italy for alleged involvement in athletes' use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong and his spokesman said the story was sensationalist. They said they never made it a secret that Ferrari acted as their consultant for nutrition and training. But they repeated their longtime denials of drug use and noted that Armstrong has emerged unscathed from investigations and testing.
Referring to his battle against cancer, Armstrong told reporters, "Knowing what I've been through, do you think I would be stupid enough to take steroids?"
Overall, Armstrong seemed comfortable with controversy and projected an accessible and sportsmanlike image. French journalists gave him credit for concerted efforts this year to praise competitors, answer questions in French and Italian, and sign autographs.
"The French press have been very kind," Stapleton said. "They've been better than the British press. He's OK with it. He understands there will always be doubters."
Race Was Won in the Heights of Pyrenees
There was little doubt after Armstrong completed an iron-man performance in the Pyrenees of southern France last week that he would vanquish all challengers in the 88th Tour de France. His arduous training regimen has made him unstoppable in mountain competition, according to commentators.
On Sunday, with victory assured, Armstrong finished in the main pack well behind Jan Svorada of the Czech Republic, the winner of the Paris stage. Spaniard Joseba Beloki came in third behind Armstrong and Ullrich in the overall competition, making for a repeat of last year's order for the top three riders.
During a relaxed interview on French television shortly after his victory, Armstrong said he had not yet decided whether he will ride in Spain's national race later this year.
An interviewer asked Armstrong about his potential to break bigger and better records, about where he sees himself in the all-time pantheon of cycling.
"I'm not a historian of cycling," Armstrong answered. "It would be hard for me to say now. My passion for the bike is my objective. Not the fifth victory, the sixth victory. My passion for the bike."
Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.