Lance's last Tour a long, strange trip

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong ran out of road Sunday. He ascended the Tour de France podium under overcast skies; not alone, as was long his custom, but with eight other riders and the team manager who was never far from his side at the height of his career. Armstrong gazed out at the multitudes with a semblance of his usual piercing look, unsmiling and almost craggy-faced, a 38-year-old whittled down by the stress of a race that wasn't kind to him.

RadioShack accepted the team classification award wearing black jerseys with football-sized numbers on their backs to recognize those living with cancer. Earlier in the afternoon, they had tried to start the final stage of the Tour with the alternate outfits and were shot down by race officials, providing one last opportunity for everyone watching to scuffle about Armstrong's motives.

The Internet erupted with outrage on both sides.

A grand gesture denied! A cynical publicity stunt!

Afterward, in brief remarks to French television, Armstrong correctly pointed out that the rules dispute resulted in twice as much exposure for the jerseys and their message. We should have known that the final day of Armstrong's tumultuous history on the Tour wouldn't pass without incident.

There was talk -- mostly by talking heads -- that the peloton would make a gesture toward Armstrong, perhaps letting him lead the parade into Paris on Sunday before real racing began on the circuits around the Champs-Elysees. That didn't happen. Instead, tradition held, and three-time winner Alberto Contador was ushered into the city by his Astana teammates, sporting the blinding teal-and-yellow kits in which Armstrong looked so out of place last year.

It's clear in hindsight that the open chafing between the two men was part of what fueled Armstrong to an overachieving third place in the 2009 Tour. Armstrong's half-lustful, half-wistful glance at the trophy in Contador's grasp at the ceremony a year ago turned out to be one of the last snapshots of his trademark obsessive competitiveness. By RadioShack's first training camp in December, Armstrong was already downplaying expectations, saying the team couldn't revolve around him any more.

Once one of the best bike handlers in the sport, Armstrong has appeared off-balance this entire season, no longer the master of events around him. He could no more control crashes and illness in the months leading up to the Tour than he could muzzle his former teammate Floyd Landis, whose May confession to his own doping and allegations against Armstrong and others triggered a concerted U.S. government investigation into a past colored by suspicions.

Yet Armstrong still figured into most prognosticators' prerace lists of contenders. How could he not? There was almost an institutional resistance to underestimating him, for solid historical reasons. Armstrong indeed resembled his former self for the first few days of this Tour, blasting to a fourth-place finish in the prologue time trial in Amsterdam and resolutely pedaling up the dirt strip alongside a cobblestoned road on the French-Belgian border, kicking up dust as he bridged to a group ahead of him.

Then came the day in the Alps when Armstrong rode into the grass to avoid one pileup, went skidding on his back at high speed in another and finally stuttered to a stop and half-tipped over when two Spanish riders inexplicably collided and went down in front of him. As Armstrong stepped gingerly out of the wreckage and righted his bike, he looked at it with the same weary disgust that we amateurs might, betrayed by circumstance.

From then on, Armstrong's Tour was a strange and mostly muted exercise. He faded to 15, then 20, then ultimately almost 40 minutes behind the race leaders. As grand jury subpoenas were issued in the federal doping and fraud investigation aimed at him and his associates, Armstrong displayed alternating flashes of defiance and near-indifference.

After Stage 14 finished at the Ax 3 Domaines ski station in the Pyrenees, a French television interviewer asked Armstrong whether this was "un Tour de trop" -- one Tour too many -- and noted that it was his 13th. "Maybe that's the problem," Armstrong said with a forced chuckle. "I never should have come."

A few things remained the same -- the adoring, trampling mobs around the team bus, the watchful vigilance of his bodyguard, the celebrity visitors and photo ops. On top of the Col du Tourmalet, French president Nicolas Sarkozy lauded Armstrong for his cancer foundation's work.

"We're just two old guys who like to ride bikes," Armstrong mustered in a manful impersonation of a garrulous talk-show guest, later adding, "I think I'm a week away from a very private life."

While the legal and public-image consequences of the current swirl around Armstrong are far from certain, the odds of him leading a quiet existence are even lower than the chances that he could have sprinted past younger, stronger men to a stage win after helping drive a day-long breakaway in the Pyrenees. We will likely get many more glimpses of him, whether it's on the beach with his family or hobnobbing with world leaders or flanked by lawyers on the steps of a courthouse.

Eighteen years after the young Texan with the fleshy face and the insouciant expression first stormed the barricades of European professional cycling, there is only one absolutely indisputable part of his legacy: the legions of American fans he brought to the sport. That passion -- as passion usually does -- comes with a price. Armstrong still inspires enduring loyalty in many, yet others who have observed both the beauty and the uglier realities of the sport turned on him and now doubt or revile his success.

The question most asked when Armstrong retired the first time was whether the sport could prosper without his magnetic, if divisive, appeal. Now that Armstrong is about to take a permanent seat in the past, cycling can finally begin to figure that out.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.