After Lance Armstrong completed a joyful "lap of honor" on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday to mark his miraculous victory in the Tour de France, the 27-year-old American received congratulatory calls from two Washington VIPs. One was from President Clinton, the other from Bill Henderson.

Bill Henderson? He's the U.S. postmaster general, and that makes him, in a sense, Armstrong's boss. The indomitable Texan who won the most prestigious event in bicycling rides for the international racing team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service.

The Postal Service executives cheering Armstrong to the finish here Sunday were beside themselves with delight. Suddenly, the humdrum old Post Office had a central role in one of the most inspiring athletic dramas in memory. Armstrong, after all, is not just another bike rider. He is the first cancer survivor to win the Tour de France. He rode, and won, the punishing 2,290-mile race barely two years after leaving a chemotherapy ward.

But what did the Postal Service get for its pricey sponsorship?

The answer is fairly obvious, says Gail Sonnenberg, USPS vice president of tactical marketing and sales development, who eschewed her business suit Sunday for a Postal Service polo shirt and bright yellow bermudas. Like other corporate sponsors, the goal was "brand-building."

"It's about making people feel good about you as an organization," Sonnenberg said. "In a competitive environment, you have to make customers want to do business with you."

The sport is hugely popular, but mainly in Western Europe. Armstrong's win has indeed made "U.S. Postal"--or, as the French race announcers put it, "yu-ezz poe-STAHL"--a household name to millions of sports fans. Unfortunately, most of those fans live in France, Spain and Italy, and are unlikely to be shipping many packages from St. Louis to Seattle.

The postal people, however, saw in cycling all sorts of parallels to delivering the mail: Climb every mountain. Get it there on time. Use teamwork for speedy delivery. "It is such a metaphor for the Postal Service, from start to finish," Sonnenberg explained.

Also bike-racing evokes speed, energy and youth, all crucial aspects of the Postal Service's campaign to update its identity. "You know what we like about it?" asked Margot Myers of USPS corporate relations, who left her desk at L'Enfant Plaza to spend the past month in France with her team. "It's not stodgy."

Postal officials say they weren't thinking of the European races when they began sponsoring the team. "We were looking at the big races in America, like the Redlands (Calif.) Classic and the U.S. Pro Championships. They draw giant crowds," said Myers.

But in 1996, Loren E. Smith, then the agency's marketing chief, claimed it would be a boon to international mail, saying, "Cycling is to international markets what football and basketball is to the U.S." Nonetheless, the agency's international mail revenue has dropped in recent years.

Another factor also made cycling attractive to the Postal Service, whose spending on its sponsorship of the 1992 Olympic Games had been attacked in Congress. As a relatively minor sport in the United States, it costs a lot less than sponsoring a major tournament in golf, tennis, or auto racing.

Because of regular gripes from some corners of Congress, the USPS is touchy about promotional spending. The Postal Service for "propriety reasons" won't say how much it spends on the bike team--although it estimated in 1996 that the sponsorship would cost $1 million a year, which is small by the standards of major league sports. French newspapers yesterday reported that Armstrong is getting a $2 million bonus for the victory.

"People probably pay more for ads on the Super Bowl than we pay for the whole team for a year," Sonnenberg said.

Armstrong won't be appearing on a U.S. stamp any time soon--you can't be on a stamp until at least 10 years after death--but he will be a highly visible postal figure in the next few months. Pictures of the leader's yellow jersey, with a blue Postal Service eagle on the front, will go up soon in almost all 38,000 U.S. post offices.

This Friday, Armstrong will be in Washington. He has a date to meet the Clintons at the White House. But before that, the champion has another stop to make: He'll drop by to greet his fellow employees at the headquarters of the Postal Service.

Staff writer Bill McAllister in Washington contributed to this report.