When Lance Armstrong stepped onto the podium in Paris to claim his sixth straight Tour de France victory yesterday, he entered the rarefied air athletes find when their accomplishments so thoroughly outstrip their rivals' that they can be measured only against those of other sports' legends.
Before Armstrong, only four men -- Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain -- in the 101-year history of cycling's most important race had won the event five times. But Armstrong did them one better with his ride down the Champs-Elysees yesterday, completing a dominant three weeks in which he was never seriously challenged by any of his competitors.
The point of comparison for Armstrong now no longer is other cyclists, but rather where his six Tour wins rank among the other great individual athletic accomplishments.
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak? Ted Williams's magical .406? Martina Navratilova's nine Wimbledon singles titles? Bjorn Borg's five? Margaret Smith Court's seven consecutive Australian Open titles?
What of heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano retiring with a 49-0 record? How about Edwin Moses' 122 straight victories in the hurdles spanning August 1977 to May 1987? Or Byron Nelson's 13 consecutive PGA tour titles from March to August 1945?
The Tour is a three-week test of endurance, strength and, of course, speed. Compare that to Cal Ripken's 2,632-game "Iron Man" streak. It's the kind of topic that fuels many a barroom debate.
Al Oerter, who won gold medals in the discus at four Olympics (1956, '60, '64, '68), compares Armstrong's dominance to English rower Stephen Redgrave, a five-time Olympic gold medalist between 1984 and 2000, and to Ripken's consecutive-games streak. Although both Armstrong and Redgrave were members of teams, they were the single individuals most responsible for leading those teams to victory.
"This is a guy on a bicycle and he has a team around him and they are protecting him a lot," said Oerter, 67, who lives in Florida. "But he has been pushing himself. He's working against the clock.
"I'm impressed. . . . Because it happens every year you get yourself into top condition and it can extend over decades. He's had six years at the absolute top. His capability, his conditioning . . . it's incredible."
Ripken said Armstrong's feat rivals DiMaggio's hitting streak and the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds's slugging because of the athletes' ability to play at an ultra-high level.
"It's phenomenal to me that someone at that level, competing against everyone else around the world, almost seems to get better," said Ripken. "It is something extraordinary and almost seems unrealistic."
Ripken said golfer Tiger Woods appeared to be headed toward dominating his sport, but his momentum may have slowed in the last couple of years.
"There's a certain equality of sorts. As you move up the ladder, the talent is narrowed and the best of the best continue to go up. And you get to the highest level, you are all great athletes," Ripken said. "For someone to separate themselves from the pack that much, it's extraordinary because everyone is an elite athlete at that level."
Roger DeCoster knows how difficult it is to be on top and stay on top. Now 59, DeCoster won the World Motocross Championships from 1971 through '73, then again in 1975-76.
"The thing that becomes harder and harder is that as you keep winning, you have more things to distract you," DeCoster said. "People come to you that want you to invest with them, want to get you into this deal, in that deal. there's more people that hang around you and want to be with you. Those are the things that make it more difficult."
Calling Armstrong's feat "pretty awesome," DeCoster compared it to Borg's command of Wimbledon and another tennis great, Pete Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam tennis tournaments between 1993 and 2000.
"It's the top," said DeCoster. "What he is doing is the top of his sport. Doing it six years in a row is big. It's comparable to what Sampras did in tennis. It's hard to compare with a sport like soccer or baseball because in the team you can win a championship and not really be on top of your game. In an individual sport, it's all you. Basically, in cycling the lead guy is the guy."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.