Stage 20 - Paris welcomes its new king.

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Six.

Six victories in a goddamn row.

Call it predictable if you want. Call it ìan easy winî if youíre the French press. Or call it ìthe least of my worriesî if youíre Bernard Hinault and youíve just lost your exclusive status in the ìclub of five.î But how you can be anything other than amazed with a guy who pulls off six consecutive years of domination in the Tour de France is beyond me. It simply takes an iron will to spend six straight years of fighting off competitors, attacks, illness, doping accusations, and the inevitable demons of self-doubtónot to mention father time. But the boy has done it. And come out stronger than ever.

Technically, this year his margin of victory was 6:19. One of his slimmest yet. But if you give him back the :19 he lost in the last day due to the simple break in the peloton, then give him back the time gain he should have had from the team time trial victory, plus maybe the extra :08 time bonus he should have had when he let Basso win stage 11, he would have won by over 8 minutes this year. Which would have given him his largest victory margin yet, which I think would best reflect his performance this year.

While the actual dayís ride was nothing terribly remarkableótypical champagne drinking, followed by hand-shaking and photo-shoots, a quick scolding of impudent Simeoni, then Dutch Tom Boonen getting the deserved victory sprint down the Champs Elysees in front of last yearís winner JP Nazonóthe meaning behind the dayís final result is rather spectacular. Not just because itís an incredible athlete showcasing his incredible discipline and ability. But because weíre seeing an athlete whoís also a man of conscience, a man of honor, and a man who cares as much about the sport as he does his own place in it. If you were watching the Tour these last few weeks, you probably saw the yellow wristbands on spectators, fans, commentators everywhere. About five to six million of them, all commemorating support of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the fight against cancer. But what you may not have seen, was that this same wristband was being worn on the wrists of about 40 other cyclists who were competing against Lance Armstrong. Against, yet aligned with his mission and not afraid to show it on their arms. What other athlete in what other sport could draw such an action from his rivals? Which football player would ever initiate such a rallying cry, yet alone get half of their competitors to go along with them? Which basketball player could bring about such a barrier-breaking phenomenon? I canít think of any. Not even the mighty Jordan or honorable Tiger Woods could I see such leadership from. And thatís what weíre seeing here. If you can see beyond his dating a rock star, allow him to make his $17 million a year in endorsements, and accept that just maybe his divorce last year was actually the right thing to do in that situation, then maybe you can see him as a truly great public figure, not just a guy who happens to ride his bike faster than anyone else on the planet. To all his critics, I say: you try carrying all those pressures on your shoulder and see how well you do biking through the Alps for a couple weeks.

And yes, also that day, my friends and I got in one more ride in the Alps. Yes, we struggled up the 20 mile long climb to the Col du Glandon, featuring far more 12% stretches than I ever care to see again, and yes we nearly fell off our bikes by the end of our 75 mile jaunt. We would have even kept going another 25 or so if a certain Texan wasnít scheduled to ride across the Champs Elysees for his 6th win on TV about the same time. We went out and put in our last dayís effort just as he did, ìfeelingî the Tour, drinking in our last few drops of the topography. And it was terribly anticlimactic in a sense. It was hard to accept that this was the last day of the Tour. That there would be no more 6 hr rides to follow on TV. No more hors categorie climbs to run with Lance on. No more flat stages where some GC rider would inevitably crash out. And no more uncertainty. Lance had removed most of that by about stage 12 when his rivals were already falling off the back. And it was damn hard to take. Because, as much as we all wanted the boy to stomp on his rivals, we wanted another nail-biter like last year. But what we got instead was a virtuoso performance. A man at the top of his game, showing us how itís truly done when you get it all rightófitness, psychology, equipment, team, timing, and luck.

And it was magical to behold.

It seems that while Lance may well be capable of a 7th win next year on the Discovery Channel team, he may decide to finally focus on the Giro díItalia or Vuelta a Espana out of respect for the sport to answer the criticism that heís focused on only one event for far too long. And while, frankly, six Tour victories is unbelievable, Iím not sure what a seventh would accomplish, other than just rub it in. So letís see him try for a Giro. And if the boy fails, so be it. It would be nice to see him as a mortal again--perhaps evenn further ingratiate him with his fans. And if thereís one thing Lance clearly likes, itís new challenges. So have at it Lance. Wherever you go, weíll be sure to chase you down.

Until next year,

-Mark

Photos:
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Glandon looms in the distance:
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W/ George Putnam:
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JJ & Todd on the Glandon.
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Worth the climb.
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Co trip-leader Jason Webster raises a glass in Lance's honor:
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