Is there an end in sight?
PARIS -- A year ago, five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault stretched out his hand to Lance Armstrong and said, "Welcome to the club."
The "club" was cycling's elite five-win fraternity that included legends Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only racers to win the sport's hardest race five times.
On Sunday, Armstrong stepped atop the podium for a record sixth successive time, capping a remarkable three-week run that saw the 32-year-old cancer survivor shake off determined rivals, a course that was described as "anti-Lance" and doping allegations to barnstorm to his most dominant Tour victory ever.
"A lot of people just one month ago thought it wouldn't be possible for me to do it," Armstrong said before he began his trip into Paris with a comfortable 6 minute, 38 second lead. "We tried to stay calm and confident that we'd have the chance."
Now, it's clear that it was his rivals who didn't have a chance. Armstrong made it look so easy these last three weeks, it seems like he can go on forever. In fact, though a teammate's assertion that Armstrong could "win 10 Tours if he wants" was said jokingly, it may not be that far off.
But there are questions. Questions concerning his place in history, his race against age and the ability of his competitors to keep up. We can try to answer those.
Then, there's the biggest question of all, one that only Armstrong can answer:
What's next for the only six-time winner of the Tour de France?
Easiest win ever?
After the nail-biter in 2003, when he won by his narrowest margin ever of just 61 seconds, Armstrong vowed to come back stronger than ever for a run at the history books.
Determined to leave his mark, Armstrong won five stages and the elusive sixth title in the most dominant Tour victory since Hinault in 1981.
Newcomer Ivan Basso -- a 26-year-old Italian who finished third -- was the only rider strong enough to follow Armstrong in the mountains. The others folded like a house of cards.
"I hardly ever, if ever, attacked in this Tour," Armstrong said. "In the hard moments, I usually found myself in groups and only had to sprint. I didn't intend to dominate the race."
If Armstrong looked vulnerable following his troubled 2003 victory, which saw him shake off crashes, dehydration and attacks at every turn, Armstrong was back on cruise control this year.
"The Tour is never easy but a few things happened that made the race easier to control," said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "Armstrong has the best preparation for the Tour. His rivals are still behind him in that regard."
Armstrong's "Blue Train," the U.S. Postal Service team, was also key to his victory. USPS smothered any dangerous sortie from rivals and delivered Armstrong fresh and ready to pounce at the base of the decisive mountain climbs.
In a telling statistic, a rough calculation reveals that Armstrong raced alone at the front of the peloton for just 9.125 kilometers out of the more than 3,000 kilometers of racing during the three-week Tour. Take away the time trials, and the rest of the time he was tucked safely behind a wheel of a teammate or rival.
Is he the greatest?
A major debate raging inside cycling is Armstrong's place in history. With the sixth win, he's accomplished what the founding members of the Tour's five-win club never could, but Armstrong's resume is weaker in other areas.
The Texan races only select events to hone his form for the Tour and then promptly ends his season within weeks after rolling off the Champs Elysées. Armstrong won a world title, but that was in 1993 before cancer transformed his body into that of a Tour contender.
Merckx, meanwhile, is considered the greatest cyclist ever and won with such ferocity that he was called "the Cannibal." The Belgian ruled in the late 1960s into the mid '70s and racked up more than 500 career victories, including five Giro d'Italias, dozens of one-day classics, the world hour record and three world titles to go with his five Tour titles.
"You cannot compare eras between the great champions," veteran Belgian director Patrick Lefevere said. "Racing was different in the days of Merckx -- racers had to race every day just to make money. If Merckx only raced the Tour, who knows how many he would have won."
Armstrong has often said he doesn't consider himself in the same league as cycling's legends.
"He's not the best of all time, but he's the best at the Tour," said Roger Legeay, a French team manager who led Greg Lemond to his third Tour win in 1990. "Armstrong is the best of his generation, just like Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain were in theirs. Is he the best of all time? Well, let's see him win the Giro or some classics first."
How many more Tours?
Armstrong's faithful teammate George Hincapie said his captain is in his best shape ever.
"He can win 10 Tours if he wants," joked Hincapie, the only rider to be on all six of Armstrong's winning efforts. "This year he was his strongest, and he's not that old. These days, 34 is the strongest year for an athlete. I don't see anyone beating him."
That's troubling news for anyone hoping to derail Armstrong, who turns 33 in September.
Until this year, none of the previous five-time winners had won after the age of 31. But compared to the hard-knock days of previous generations, Armstrong takes better care of himself, races less, focuses only on the Tour and hasn't suffered a serious career-threatening injury or crash.
Armstrong's dominant win is sure to take the wind out of the sails of his rivals.
He demoralized a gaggle of Spanish riders, such as Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia and Roberto Heras, who were sent packing before the Tour hit the Alps. Compatriot Tyler Hamilton was hyped as a pre-Tour favorite, but he bruised his back so badly in Stage 6 that he didn't make it out of the Pyrénées.
"I thought I had the strength to finish on the podium, but no one was going to beat Armstrong this year," Hamilton said. "He was too strong."
Uber-rival Jan Ullrich was completely dominated by the Texan in two decisive summit finishes in the Pyrénées. Ullrich finished fourth, the first time the 1997 Tour champion has finished worse than second.
Only rising stars Andreas Kloeden and Basso made it a race, but Armstrong beat them comfortably with a margin of more than six minutes.
Armstrong will race next year -- he's already confirmed that -- but whether he'll race the Tour again is still up in the air.
In 2005, cable giant Discovery Channel is set to take over the sponsorship of Armstrong's team for three years. Key to the $30 million deal was Armstrong's commitment to race at least next season.
There's growing pressure on Armstrong to race the Giro d'Italia, a three-week race held in May that's considered cycling's greatest race behind the Tour. There's speculation he'll race the 2005 Giro and return for one last shot at the Tour in '06.
"I have a contract to ride in 2005. Discovery Channel and I will sit down in 30-60 days and decide what the schedule is for next year," Armstrong said. "But make no mistake about it, this is the greatest race in the world. This is the one I love the most -- cannot imagine skipping the Tour. If I do come back, it will be only with perfect condition.
"I'd come ready to win."
Whatever he decides, Armstrong's historic run has been quite a ride.
After winning in such dominant fashion, it's obvious the only person who will put an end to the American flier is Armstrong himself.
Andrew Hood, who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996, is a freelance writer based in Spain.
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