PARIS - Any world history student knows the French are touchy about the subject of foreign occupation. Yet once a year for three weeks, they cede 2,200 miles of roadway to an army of cyclists from two dozen countries, form the world's largest reception line on either side of the course and sincerely root for the best man to win.
Lance Armstrong owns all of this once again: the mountains, the straight-aways, the fields of lavender and sunflowers, the lone gendarme standing sentry every few hundred yards, the little girl clutching her doll and waving, the man perched two stories high in a cherry-picker, the families picnicking out of their trailers, the fans darting into the road between cars the night before the race to paint their heroes' names on the asphalt.
No one wins the Tour de France by accident and no one captures two without being an exceptionally disciplined warrior. Yesterday, the runt from Plano, Texas, claimed cycling's most prestigious title for a second straight time. Greg LeMond, who won titles in 1986, 1989 and 1990, is the only other American to have prevailed in this European-dominated event.
On the victor's podium at the foot of the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong, 28, set his diamond-shaped jaw with appropriate seriousness and pressed a yellow cap to his chest for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then he lifted his squirming, 9-month-old son Luke aloft, kissed him and set him on his shoulders.
"He's been my main motivation over the last year," Armstrong said.
The chubby, radiant baby is the symbol of all that has gone right in Armstrong's life since he was diagnosed with late-stage testicular cancer in October 1996. Doctors told him he might only have a few months to live and at the same time advised him to freeze sperm so surgery and treatment would not preclude his ability to father a child should he survive. Armstrong opted for optimism and never has stopped pedaling in that direction.
Armstrong's illness was practically a back-burner issue in this Tour, a development that could be interpreted as a tribute to his glowing fitness. But he repeatedly emphasized that his second victory will make him a more effective and determined leader in the fight against the disease.
"In my heart and mind, it's still my main objective," Armstrong said. "I want to survive this illness long-term. ...
"I don't consider this year a comeback like last year. I consider this year a confirmation of last year."
In yesterday's stage, the traditional mass sprint that closes the race was won by Stefano Zanini, an Italian with the Mapei team. Nearly all the rest of the 128-man field finished the 87-mile 21st stage in 3 hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds.
Armstrong rode serenely in the pack.
U.S. Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel said Armstrong has improved every year since he returned from his medical ordeal. Armstrong's climbing comrade-in-arms, Tyler Hamilton, said his teammate's legs work more smoothly and efficiently than ever and he seemed to survive the Tour in better shape than last year, despite a more difficult course. Armstrong won only one of 21 stages this year, compared with four in 1999.
"At dinner every night, he's been chatty and wide-eyed, and you can't say that about all of us," Hamilton said.
Competitively, Armstrong said he had something to prove this year. Two previous Tour winners, Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich, did not enter the Tour in 1999. Their absence from the starting line prompted some to say Armstrong's path lacked obstacles.
Ullrich, the 26-year-old German who struggles with his weight, turned in a steady performance and finished second in the overall standings, 6:02 behind Armstrong. Pantani dropped out July 14 in the Alps, the day after he broke away from the pack unusually early in a move many felt was intended to target Armstrong.
Final overall standings
1. Lance Armstrong, U.S., U.S. Postal Service, 92 hours, 33 minutes, 8 seconds.
2. Jan Ullrich, Germany, Deutsche Telekom, 6:02 behind.
3. Joseba Beloki, Spain, Festina, 10:04.
4. Christophe Moreau, France, Festina, 10:34.
5. Roberto Heras, Spain, Kelme, 11:50.
6. Richard Virenque, France, Polti, 13:26.
7. Santiago Botero, Colombia, Kelme, 14:18.
8. Fernando Escartin, Spain, Kelme, 17:21.
9. Francisco Mancebo, Spain, Banesto, 18:09.
10. Daniele Nardello, Italy, Mapei, 18:25.
25. Tyler Hamilton, U.S., U.S. Postal Service, 56:30.
37. Kevin Livingston, U.S., U.S. Postal Service,1:23:13.
48. Bobby Julich, United States, Credit Agricole, 1:44:15.