PARIS -- He has run them ragged for six straight years and
injected American star power into the Tour de France. Many rivals
of Lance Armstrong, cowed by his unparalleled success, are eagerly
waiting for his flame to burn out.
The Texan made history Sunday when he rode across the finish
line wearing the Tour leader's yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees
for a record sixth time.
Doubts remain about when he'll try for No. 7, but for some, the retirement party couldn't come soon enough.
"In the last few years, we've been working a bit for the future
-- for the post-Armstrong -- because he's simply unbeatable," said
Eusebio Unzue, sporting director for Spanish team Illes Balears-B.
Among possible Armstrong successors, the biggest buzz is about
26-year-old Italian Ivan Basso. He finished third after coming in seventh a year ago and 11th in 2002.
Illes Balears features young Russian stars Vladimir Karpets and
Denis Menchov -- the best young Tour riders this year
and last, respectively. Team leader Francisco Mancebo was sixth overall in 2004.
"Mancebo is just waiting for him [Armstrong] to leave -- as we
all are," Unzue said.
Since Armstrong's reign began in 1999, rivals have pursued the
scraps he left behind, collecting impressive -- albeit lesser --
laurels as the race's best climber, sprinter or young rider.
A cartoon Monday in sports daily L'Equipe showed a wanted poster
with a half-dozen pictures of Armstrong and the caption: "It's
been six years we've been chasing after him!"
Rivals can take heart. At 32, Armstrong is much closer to the
end of his career than the beginning. On Sunday, he vowed to race
again in his favorite competition, but not necessarily next year.
The next generation will inherit Armstrong's mark on the Tour's
culture. He has helped remold the race into a highly professional,
Riders now study course routes much more than before. Meticulous
training regimens, top-dollar sponsorships, and technological
advances such as rider radios and earphones are now commonplace.
Even after three victories by fellow American Greg LeMond in
1986, 1989 and 1990, the Tour was still largely a parochial, though
celebrated, European affair until Armstrong came along.
He dragged the three-week marathon into prime-time.
His remarkable comeback from testicular cancer to win cycling's
showcase race created millions more fans worldwide.
Armstrong brought laserlike focus -- and largely ignored other
major races such as the Italian Giro or Spanish Vuelta.
Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team has set a new bar for
performance, by concentrating all its firepower around helping its
star win, said Bobby Julich, a CSC teammate of Basso.
"U.S. Postal does the most preparation, and we are starting to
prepare like that also," Julich said. "I think we have a future
Tour winner with Ivan Basso -- so I'm sure we're going to be
committing a lot more effort to doing the sort of things that
Postal has done.
"He's made it more clinical. He's a surgeon, man, and he goes
to work," Julich said of Armstrong.
Critics complain he has brought an American mind-set to the
race, making it more methodical and calculated -- and yanking the
competition away from its European roots.
Before his day, "an American in cycling was comparable to a
French baseball team in the World Series," Armstrong wrote in his
book, "It's Not About the Bike."
"There was a big difference between the discreet jockeying of
European cycling, and the swaggering, trash-talking American idea
of competition I was reared with," he wrote.
U.S. fans are just as brash. A roadside banner on the nearly mythical L'Alpe d'Huez featured a map of France in U.S. stars and stripes
with the words: "American owned and operated since 1999."
The marathon race has entranced Armstrong, conjuring his
near-obsession about winning. Since 1999, he has shown a killer
instinct that few have been able to match.
Like Michael Jordan, who would psych out rivals with his skill
at performing his best when the pressure was the highest, Armstrong
has achieved a definitive psychological edge over other racers.
Germany's Andreas Kloden, the Tour runner-up, got a dose of the
mind game in the hardest Alpine stage, when an unbending Armstrong
sped past him to win a sprint finish in the last few meters.
"No gifts this year," Armstrong said after the stage.
During a ceremonial lap on the Champs-Elysees, Kloden, when
asked whether he would be able to dethrone Armstrong at a future
Tour, chuckled sheepishly and said, "I'll try."
Unzue is eager to see the American go.
"Of course. Why? For the cycling ambiance, the sporting aspect,
to see a more open and spectacular Tour," Unzue said.
But others say they'll respect Armstrong's decision about his
future -- whatever it is -- and have been content to enjoy the
Texan's history-making moments.
"I like to see Lance just because he's amazing to watch," said
Christian Vandevelde, an American with Liberty Seguros. "It has
been cool to be a part of it."