Lance Armstrong's Last Ride

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Many iconic athletes, who spend their entire lives as victors, often have to experience losing before they’re convinced to call it a career. Willie Mays stumbling in his forties with the Mets, Muhammad Ali falling to Leon Spinks and doing roach motel commercials in the late-seventies, Joe Namath tossing interceptions for the Rams. They should have retired years before.

Then there are the ones who leave us wanting more. Michael Jordan did it twice, in 1993 after three straight championships with the Bulls, and again in 1998, after a second troika of titles (we can just forget that stint with the Wizards, right)? Ted Williams, eye sharper than a razor at age 41, hit a homer in his last at bat. Barry Sanders might have rushed for 25,000 yards by now.

Lance Armstrong is of that second type, and as he cruised to his seventh straight Tour de France title on Sunday, his status as a cycling—and cultural—icon was secure before he even hit Paris, since Tour officials invoked a rule freezing the general standings when there's rain on the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysées. That didn't curb the excitement for the fans, whose eyes and whoops were all for Armstrong on the riders' eight last circuits around the Champs-Elysées, so fans could see Armstrong one last time. By the time Armstrong crossed the finish line, the sun had turned the day yellow, to match the jersey Armstrong wore like a kid’s favorite pair of pajamas. “He’s a once in a lifetime athlete,” says Jonathan Vaughters, an ex-teammate of Armstrong who now coaches junior riders in the U.S. “I don’t know if I will live to see, or my son will live to see, anyone like him again.”

Some cycling observers wondered if the cancer survivor had enough left for his last Tour, a three-week, 2,232.7-mile trek though the northern and southern tiers of France. Now, we wonder if he could have won 10. Armstrong wore the yellow jersey for 16 (out of 21) stages, more than any of his previous six wins. After trailing fellow American Dave Zabriskie by two seconds through the first three flat stages in early July, Armstrong took the yellow jersey after the fourth stage, a team time trial in which Zabriskie crashed, ending his Tour. Armstrong gave the jersey up for a day, to Germany’s Jen Voight, after the ninth stage, saving his strength for the Alpine climbs. Armstrong came out of the Alps with a lead, but a 12th-stage crash cost him Manuel Beltran, a teammate, or “domestique,” who was slated to protect Armstrong on the Pyrenees climbs.

It didn’t matter. Armstrong pushed his lead from 38 seconds to 2 min., 46 sec. during the brutal Pyrenees ascents. His rivals had a final long-shot chance to catch him, Saturday’s 34.5-mile time trial in Saint-Etieene, the penultimate stage of the Tour. Armstrong won the stage, his first on this year’s Tour. From the podium, tears filled his steel-blue eyes—he knew it was over.

Sunday’s finale was just a coronation. Before the start, he signed autographs in Corbeil-Essonnes. The French, who had loudly suspected Armstrong of doping, now adopt him as their champ. He flashed seven fingers—one for each win—and sipped champagne while riding with teammates into Paris. The three biggest reasons for Armstrong’s retirement, his son and two daughters, joined their father on the podium. “Vive le Tour!” he shouted, waving.

Armstrong, 33, insisted he was finished, though he’s not quite ready for shuffleboard. “I’m an athlete,” he said after Saturday’s time trial. “I’m not going to sit around and be a fat slob.” But he’ll take his time deciding what’s next. “I don’t know the next time [when] I’ll ride a bike will be,” he said after clinching the title. “I’ve got to refocus my life and try to find a new balance. I need goals, but they won’t be sporting goals. I can’t imagine a life of vacation, but I can imagine one with more vacations. But I still want to try to make a difference in the world.” An interviewer asked what victory tasted like. “A cold beer in about twenty minutes,” Armstrong answered.

After that? Armstrong has hinted at a future in politics. He’s inspired millions of Americans to wear yellow Livestrong bracelets, so he has a base. “Lance showed everybody that willpower matters,” says Giorgio Andretta, a Charlotte, N.C. bicycle importer who traveled to the Champs-Elysées to catch Armstrong’s last win. And his home state of Texas will elect a governor next year. “Never say never,” Armstrong told TIME about his political ambitions. “I’m a fighter, and I do have certain beliefs. I don’t think I’m truly cut out for it, but if people want it in ten years, who knows?” Ten Tour de Frances, or Senator Armstrong in ten years? If we have to settle for elections, his greatest wins may still be down the road. — reported by James Graff/Paris

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