The image was so familiar that it was hard to distinguish from that of years past: a rider in yellow with his legs pumping high and hard into his chest, eyes fixed on the near horizon, intent on getting there first.
Lance Armstrong won the final truly competitive stage of the 2005 Tour de France and sealed his seventh straight victory looking steady and powerful, his streamlined helmet bearing the stylized Lone Star of Texas lowered into the wind like a battering ram.
Only a few details betrayed the flight of time since 1999 -- deeper creases in the lean face of a man now well into athletic middle age and distracted children waiting at the finish line, happy to accept the winner's flowers and stuffed lion Dad knelt and handed them as if he'd just won a shoot-the-ducks game at the county fair.
"There's no reason to continue -- I don't need more," Armstrong told reporters after beating his perennial rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, by 23 seconds in the Stage 20 individual time trial and widening his overall lead to 4 minutes 40 seconds over Italy's Ivan Basso.
Armstrong looked as hungry as ever as he devoured the hilly, demanding 34.5-mile course in hot afternoon sunshine in the rolling countryside outside this central French city. But the hours before his last "full-gas" effort, as Armstrong would say, were relaxed.
He horsed around with his three children, 5-year-old Luke and 3-year-old twins Grace and Isabelle, on a beach towel spread on the ground next to the Discovery Channel team bus. One of the girls later clutched his thigh as he warmed up on a stationary bike.
Armstrong's mother, Linda, close friends and some new acquaintances gathered at the bus, including five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx and 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a longtime bike enthusiast. Kerry is also a prostate cancer survivor and has worn one of the ubiquitous yellow "Livestrong" bracelets since early in last year's presidential campaign.
Rock singer Sheryl Crow, Armstrong's companion, worked for Kerry and the couple came to Boston for the election night vigil and party, Kerry said. Armstrong invited Kerry to come to the Tour, which the senator followed as a boy when his family lived in Europe.
"So I finally said I'd do it," said Kerry, sporting a Tour credential around his neck that read simply, "Senateur."
"I finished my vote on Thursday and got out and get back for my vote Monday. Just a quick weekend."
Kerry got out for an early-morning bike ride Saturday and previewed part of the time trial course. The twists and turns got the best of a few riders, most notably Rabobank team rider Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark, a climbing specialist who began the day in third place overall and was clearly unnerved by the pressure of trying to stay on the podium.
Rasmussen's hopes evaporated in a series of mishaps that left him wordless and grim-faced at the finish despite his secure hold on the polka-dot top climber's jersey. He tipped over when he leaned too far in a traffic roundabout, had two flat tires and swerved into a ditch on a descent, tumbling over his handlebars. His team had all it could do to keep providing him with new bikes, four in all.
His misfortune helped lift a determined Ullrich into third place .
"I'm glad to have finished this Tour in good shape despite two crashes," said Ullrich, who emerged relatively unscathed after going through the back window of a team car that braked sharply in front of him on a training ride the day before the race started. Ullrich had a second Houdini-like escape after he was blown off his bike by a gust of wind on a high-speed descent in the Vosges mountains.
Ullrich somewhat wistfully said before the Tour that he hoped to be invited to Armstrong's Sunday night party after the largely ceremonial final stage that ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Armstrong apparently obliged in private -- and also extended a public challenge to the powerful but seemingly blocked rider who has run out of chances to get the best of him.
"I think he can win the Tour again," Armstrong said. "What we see toward the end of the event is a guy who can win the race. The first half of the race is why he loses. It's a question of a kilo and a half [3.3 pounds] at the start and a little better preparation. If he changes that, he can win. That's not a criticism, but if he were on our team, that would be my first words to him."