Armstrong starts last stage

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong set off Sunday on the last ride of
his amazing career, a victory parade into Paris to collect his
seventh Tour de France title.

The 33-year-old Texan who came back from cancer to dominate
cycling's most prestigious race was retiring at the end of the 21st
and last stage of this year's Tour, an 89.8-mile trek from
Corbeil-Essonnes south of Paris.

Only a freak accident on the last leg could prevent him from
collecting his title on the famed Champs-Elys Dees. There, he will
mount the podium one last time -- and then say farewell.

Armstrong posed for photographers as he started the 21st stage
at the front of a pack, holding up seven fingers and a piece of
paper with the number 7 on it, with light rain falling.

He gave a quick TV interview as he pedaled. Asked where he was
heading to next, Armstrong replied: "The retirement home."

Armstrong capped his Tour by winning the final time trial on
Saturday -- extending his overall lead.

Tears welled in Armstrong's steel-blue eyes as he looked down
Saturday from the winner's podium at his children -- 5-year-old Luke
and 3-year-old twins Grace and Isabelle -- and slipped into the 82nd
race leader's yellow jersey of his career.

An 83rd "maillot jaune" awaited him in Paris. Only Belgian
Eddy Merckx -- with 111 yellow jerseys -- has won more. But Armstrong
will have won two more Tours by Sunday.

Armstrong beat Jan Ullrich, his perennial rival, by 23 seconds
in Saturday's clock-race, crowning another dominant Tour by earning
the individual stage win he had lacked this year.

Riding with an aerodynamic bike, helmet and suit to reduce wind
drag and save seconds, Armstrong made easy work of the time trial
that looped north of Saint-Etienne in central France.

As race leader, Armstrong started last of the 155 riders left
after three weeks of racing across France and its mountains. On
July 2, 189 riders started the Tour.

At the first time-check, Armstrong trailed Ivan Basso of Italy.
But he led by the second and stayed ahead from that point.

The stage win was the 22nd of Armstrong's career. Eleven of
those were time trials. Armstrong also won three team trials --
including one this year -- with his support riders.

"It's nice to finish your career on a high note," Armstrong
said. "As a sportsman, I wanted to go out on top."

He even overtook Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen, who started out
six minutes before him but had a disastrous ride on the tricky and
technical route's sharp bends, fast downhills and tiring uphills.

Armstrong said he was motivated by his children.

"To have three precious little people there hopefully
remembering one last yellow jersey was a very strong incentive for
me," he said. "I wanted to ride in today and ride into Paris in
yellow for them, for the last image of their father as a sportsman
to be that of a champion."

Armstrong traditionally sips champagne in the saddle on the last
ride into Paris. Excitement is reserved for the end, when sprinters
contest for the honor of winning the stage on the crowd-lined
Champs-Elys Dees.

Even before he set off Sunday morning, admirers gathered on the
Champs-Elys Dees. Many wore yellow jerseys. Some were wrapped in
American flags, and others, like 53-year-old cancer survivor Nigel
Clifton of England, said they came to support their hero.

"Lance Armstrong has been an inspiration to me," said Clifton,
who overcame testicular cancer like Armstrong. "I came especially
from Britain to support him. I wanted to see him on his bike."

Thor Hushovd of Norway is aiming to defend his green jersey,
awarded to the Tour's best sprinter. But two Australians, Stuart
O'Grady and Robbie McEwen, are hoping to wrest it from him on the
last leg.

Armstrong said he was retiring with "no regrets."

"There's no reason to continue. I don't need more," he said.
"My time is up, I don't crave attention."

Basso should finish second on the podium, improving on his third
place last year. The last podium place will go to Ullrich, who
moved up from fourth to third in the overall standings with a fine
ride in the time trial.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion whose hopes of winning another
have repeatedly been dashed by Armstrong, said he gave "everything
I had but it was not enough against Lance.

"But I'm happy to be on the podium and to finish this Tour in
good health, despite the two crashes I had," the German added.

Armstrong says he wants to stay out of the public eye for the
next few years.

"I need a period of quiet and peace and privacy," he said.

But Armstrong knows where he'll be next July.

"I will be parked in front of the TV watching the Tour," he
said. "The 2006 Tour de France is going to be very interesting ...
It will be a very different race."