PARIS – Lance Armstrong (search) rode into history Sunday by winning the Tour de France (search) for a record sixth time, an achievement that confirmed him as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.
His sixth crown in six dominant years elevated Armstrong above four champions who won five times. And never in its 101-year-old history has the Tour had a winner like Armstrong -- a Texan who just eight years ago was given less than a 50 percent chance of overcoming testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.
Armstrong's unbeaten streak since 1999 has helped reinvigorate the greatest race in cycling (search), steering it into the 21st century. And the Tour, as much a part of French summers as languid meals over chilled rose, molded Armstrong into a sporting superstar.
No. 6. The record. The achievement was almost too much even for Armstrong to comprehend.
"It might take years. I don't know. It hasn't sunk in yet. But six, standing on the top step on the podium on the Champs-ElysÄees is really special," he said.
For him, the final ride into Paris and its famous tree-lined boulevard was a lap of honor he savored with a glass of champagne in the saddle. Even Jan Ullrich, his main adversary in previous years who had his worst finish this Tour, gulped down a glass offered by Armstrong's team manager through his car window.
Belgian rider Tom Boonen won the final sprint, with Armstrong cruising safely behind with the trailing pack to claim his crown. Armstrong's winning margin over second-placed Andreas Kloden was 6 minutes, 19 seconds, with Italian Ivan Basso in third at 6:40. Ullrich finished fourth.
Armstrong opened a new page for the Tour in 1999 just one year after the race faced its worst doping scandal, ejecting the Festina team after police caught one of its employees with a stash of drugs.
Armstrong's victories and his inspiring comeback from cancer have drawn new fans to the race. His professionalism, attention to detail, grueling training methods and tactics have raised the bar for other riders hoping to win the three-week cycling marathon.
Eye-catching in the bright yellow race leader's jersey he works so hard for, Armstrong donned a golden cycling helmet for a relaxed roll past sun-baked fields of wheat and applauding spectators into Paris from Montereau in the southeast.
He joked and chatted with teammates who wore special blue jerseys with yellow stripes. They stretched in a line across the road with their leader for motorcycle-riding photographers to record the moment. The team was the muscle behind Armstrong's win, leading him up grueling mountain climbs, shielding him from crashes and wind, and keeping him stoked with drinks and food.
With five solo stage wins and a team time-trial victory with his U.S. Postal Service squad, this was Armstrong's best Tour, one in which he was forced -- once again -- to defend himself against accusations that he might be taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong built his lead from Day 1, placing second in the third-fastest debut time trial in Tour history. That performance silenced doubts that Armstrong, at 32, was past his prime.
Even more so than in other Tours that he dominated, he finished off rivals in the mountains -- with three victories in the Alps, including a time trial on the legendary climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, and another in the Pyrenees. He also took the final time trial on Saturday, even though he his overall lead was so big he didn't need the win.
"We never had a sense of crisis, only the stress of the rain and the crashes in the first week," Armstrong said. "I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better. Some of them just completely disappeared."
Basque rider Iban Mayo peaked too early when he beat Armstrong in the warm-up Dauphine Libere race three weeks before the Tour. Mayo crashed in the Tour's rain-soaked, nervous first week, racing toward a treacherous stretch of cobblestones that Armstrong crossed safely. Mayo finally abandoned the race after the Pyrenees, his morale shot after two disappointing rides in the mountains where he'd hoped to win in front of Basque fans.
Former Armstrong teammates Roberto Heras, left trailing in the mountains, and American Tyler Hamilton, badly bruised in a crash, also went home.
"The little guys, the pure climbers -- Mayo, Tyler -- the first week is very hard on them, always fighting for position, the wind. A lot of acceleration through villages at the finish. This becomes a problem for them after 10 days," Armstrong said. "That's the beauty of the Tour. If the race was 10 or 12 days long, they'd be much better. You have to do it all."
Ullrich, the 1997 champion and a five-time runner-up, never recovered from seeing Armstrong zoom into the distance for two straight days in the Pyrenees.
The only rider to stay with Armstrong there was Basso, a 26-year-old with the makings of a future winner. He came out of the Alps, where Armstrong for the first time in his career won three consecutive stages, in second place overall.
But Kloden, the German champion and Ullrich's teammate, outdid the soft-spoken Basso in the final time trial, placing third behind Armstrong and Ullrich. That ride propelled Kloden, who did not complete last year's Tour, into second spot on the podium, pushing Basso back to third.
"I never would have predicted Kloden before the Tour. But you could see he was really strong and skinny in the first week," Armstrong said.
Armstrong still hasn't decided whether he will back next year to compete in the race he loves above all others, for which he trains relentlessly, leaving his three children in Texas, with former wife Kristin, while he pounds the roads in Europe.
"I don't know what I'll do next summer. I suspect I'll be here. It's too big of a race. My only hesitance is I think the people and the event perhaps need a change, new faces, a new winner," he said. "If I'm here, I race to win."
Seven victories would be like owning seven sports cars, nice but not necessary. Armstrong says he's interested in trying other races -- the Tour of Italy, Classics, and beating the one-hour cycling world record held by Britain's Chris Boardman.
After more than 1,900 miles of racing, riders mostly took it easy on the 101-mile final stage, until they reached the crowd-lined Champs-ElysÄees. Some took souvenir photos of themselves as they rode, and Armstrong even stopped by the side of the road momentarily to adjust his saddle.
He also chatted to Belgian rider Axel Merckx, whose father, Eddy, is one of the five-time champions Armstrong passed. The others are Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.
Victory in France has brought Armstrong fame, wealth and softened some of the brashness he displayed as a young rider. He's picked up rudimentary French and says his love of the Tour won't end when he eventually retires.
"I'll definitely watch the Tour on TV, always," he said.