One of the greatest athletes of this era, or any other, ended months of speculation Monday by announcing his retirement. Staying in character, Lance Armstrong saved the biggest mountain to climb for last.
''Whenever I watch sport, whatever sport it may happen to be, I love to see the guy go out on top,'' he said. ''I would love to do that.''
No one, not even Armstrong, knows at the moment what it will take to win a seventh Tour de France. Just don't try telling his rivals that. Until Armstrong rolled smoothly onto the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elyses wearing the yellow jersey last summer, no cyclist had ever won six Tours, never mind all six in a row. He's won them easy and early, won them sick and hanging on with both hands, once after crashing and another time when he was barely jostled.
But to win the next one, Armstrong will have to prepare once more for all those things, and do it an age when all the other great champions, with their cautionary tales strewn all around him, were effectively finished. He turns 34 in September.
''The body just doesn't keep going and going,'' Armstrong said. Which conveniently leaves out that at least until now, his has been the exception to the rule.
Considering the size and topography of the stage 21 stages, actually, covering 2,222 miles you bet against the grandest of exits by one of the greatest competitors ever at your own risk. Either way, the final lap of Armstrong's career should prove every bit as fascinating as his breakthrough win at the Tour in 1999 and that one came after outlasting a deadly form of testicular cancer.
It was also before the spotlight found Armstrong, and he found out what a costly, uncomfortable place it can be. Intense as the scrutiny is over here, it pales in comparison to what he faces on the other side of the Atlantic. Over there, Armstrong is Barry Bonds on wheels. Every appearance resembles an interrogation, and every thing he says is parsed and then plumbed for hidden meanings. Worse, some of those appearances actually are interrogations.
According to the Scotsman newspaper, Armstrong is facing at least eight legal battles at the moment, several stemming from allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs. As a result, when he isn't competing, Armstrong is often jetting from country to country to testify in trials or the occasional inquiry. It's hardly the ideal way to prepare for an assault on history.
But that's what makes Armstrong so compelling. He's had mixed results in a handful of prep races pointing toward his final tour and received equally mixed reviews from his handlers. He pulled out of the Paris-Nice race after three stages in 62nd place overall with a sore throat. After Armstrong struggled home 28th at the Ronde of Flanders in early April, even Johan Bruyneel, the team manager who sat on Armstrong's right during the news conference and has been at his side for all six Tour wins, admitted, ''He suffered a lot in the final stages.''
So naturally, Armstrong popped up in to California barely a week later, rolling to the starting line just minutes before the decidedly low-key Lemire Memorial Grand Prix began in rural Ventura County. And instead of sounding fatigued, he told race announcer Dave Towle, ''I've been lining up at races since I was a kid, and I still get that nervous feeling in my stomach. I just love it. It's great to be here.''
That competitive nature will never change, even as the work required to back it up becomes more than he can bear. Armstrong misses his kids, his privacy, sleeping in, going out and munching on the occasional doughnut. Besides, his age leaves him with few other options.
It's just one measure of Armstrong's legacy that ever since he set the date for this announcement, the only thing spinning faster than the pedals on his bike these days was the rumor mill cranking out guesses at what he would say.
Friends teased Armstrong might announce his marriage to Sheryl Crow. Rivals fretted he might take on even more races, that Armstrong wouldn't consider a seventh Tour win enough. Promoters on both sides of the pond held their collective breath. One highly placed source inside the Texan's camp wouldn't rule out a run for governor.
That source turned out to be teammate and close pal George Hincapie, who told The New York Times there might be even bigger races in Armstrong's future that didn't require climbing on a bike.
''If I were to guess,'' Hincapie said, ''he'll say he's running for governor of Texas.''
Don't bet against Armstrong on that one, either. Something about him makes us think he'll never quit looking for bigger mountains to climb.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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