-- Just as he beat the steepest odds in overcoming cancer nearly a decade ago, American Lance Armstrong triumphed Sunday as the first cyclist in the 101-year history of the Tour de France to win his sport's most prestigious race six times.
Armstrong, the overall leader for a third of the grueling 2,000-mile competition, rode the final stage into Paris at what, for him, was an almost leisurely pace. Adorned with a golden helmet, he flashed a relaxed smile and six fingers at the cameramen hanging shotgun from an entourage of motorcycles.
He reached the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees just before 4:45 p.m. and, after the obligatory eight loops on Paris's most magnificent boulevard, crossed the finish line without any special flourish, wedged deep within the huge peloton of riders.
Only when he stepped atop the awards podium did the 32-year-old Texan jubilantly embrace the unprecedented achievement he had refused for so long to consider. This, despite relentless speculation since the Tour began in Liege, Belgium, three weeks ago.
"In 1999, I never thought I would win a second or a third one or however many," Armstrong said at a news conference after the race, only minutes after taking a cell phone call from President Bush. "Making history is incredibly special."
Perhaps not as many American and Texas flags waved in the crowd as in years past. But no matter the world's geopolitics, the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the boulevard under sunny skies cheered and applauded as appreciatively for Armstrong as any rider.
"J'aime Lance Armstrong," declared Parisian Dominique Champenois, who wore a stars and stripes bandana in his honor. "Why? Because he is a grand champion," she explained in French, with "tres courage."
In cycling, her hero stands alone, separate from Jacques Anquetil, from Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, even from Eddy Merckx, the Belgian rider regarded by many as the greatest ever. Each won five Tours and Indurain, like Armstrong, managed those consecutively.
But none could clinch a sixth victory.
Their failed attempts gave rise to "the curse of the sixth." Naysayers wondered whether it would hold one more time, and Armstrong's age, they suggested, might prove a double curse. None of the rest was a Tour champion after 31.
"Winning six times does not make me a better rider than those champions," Armstrong said. "Today's cycling is just different."
He did not merely win this race so much as dominate it. Supported flawlessly by his U.S. Postal teammates, he suffered only a minor crash early on and none of the setbacks or struggles that marred his Tour last year.
Armstrong won three of the four most punishing road stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, all in dramatic one-on-one sprints. He also won the two individual time trials -- by more than a minute each -- powering his way up and through the brutal 21 switchbacks of L'Alpe d'Huez, as well as the penultimate stage that took him to the edge of history.
By then, French television announcers were practically hyperventilating. Over and over they showed clips of his previous victories, concluding with the shot of him Sunday, cap in hand, hand over heart, framed against the Arc de Triomphe as the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played once again.
"I love my job. I love my team. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," he said.
Armstrong's final time of 83 hours 36 minutes 2 seconds provided a 6:19 margin over Andreas Kloden, a German who rides for the T-Mobile team.
"He's been the strongest man for the last six years," Kloden told the Associated Press. "It's unbelievable."
Twenty-one seconds farther behind was Italian Ivan Basso of the CSC team.
So much for the efforts of race organizers, through time bonuses and restrictions and the geographic staging of the course itself, to ensure a tight, exciting climax. Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo, Roberto Heras -- all of these key Armstrong rivals folded.
As for Jan Ullrich, whom Armstrong had labeled his greatest challenge, the German cyclist came in fourth.
"We never had a sense of crisis, only the stress of the rain and the crashes in the first week," Armstrong said. "I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better. Some of them just completely disappeared."
One other American, Levi Leipheimer of the Rabobank team, placed in the top 10. The top French rider was Christophe Moreau (12th). Not since Hinault in 1985 has this country had one of its own wear the winner's yellow jersey at the Tour's conclusion.
"He's the man, ain't he?" said Francine Fischer, of Ocala, Fla., who had been tracking the race for the past eight days. In advance of the peloton's arrival on the Champs-Elysees, she and her husband had positioned themselves at the heavily foot-trafficked intersection just north of Petit Palais.
There they attracted much attention, quite intentionally. Both wore red, white and blue top hats and held an American flag. For good measure, she also sported a red, white and blue jacket.
"It's the heart, and it's the desire that rallies people to Armstrong," said her husband, Randy Fischer.
Except for a nasty comment at Saturday's time trial -- "I don't speak enough French to know what it was, but I know a curse," he said -- the couple said they had encountered no anti-American sentiment, but much Armstrong enthusiasm. Cracks about the cyclist's alleged doping, which he has steadfastly denied, were few by comparison.
A group of body-painted American teenagers, in Paris for a month of language study, vouched for the same as they celebrated on the boulevard.
"There's been a lot of love, beyond Lance love," stressed 16-year-old Drew Verardo of Rhode Island, who'd even dared to sing her national anthem in the Metro.
Many in the crowd, even those clearly supporting other riders, wore the yellow wrist band imprinted with the "LIVESTRONG" motto of Armstrong's nonprofit foundation. The play on words recalls his battle with testicular cancer that was so advanced when diagnosed in 1996 that doctors gave him only a 50 percent chance of survival.
Just as in cycling, he proved stronger and tougher than his opponent and is considered to be cancer-free. And as those wristbands proved, his recovery from the brink -- and the millions of dollars he and his foundation have subsequently raised for cancer research -- continues to garner great admiration.
Armstrong has promised not to divert his focus from that work. On his bike, however, he finally may turn his attention.
Several days ago, Armstrong suggested, that while he will compete again in the Tour, he may skip next year in order to try other events. One thing certainly would be different: His team in 2005 will be Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications.
He again hinted about the future in a comment after Sunday's awards ceremony.
"The last laps [down the Champs-Elysees], I thought, 'I just want to get it over with,' "Armstrong conceded. "And then I thought, 'You might want to do a few more laps because you can't take it for granted. You may never do it again.' "