PARIS He stood stock still, right hand covering his heart, and listened to his national anthem being played along the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elysees for a seventh and final time. And just like that, it was over.
The moment Lance Armstrong had alternately dreaded and dreamed about in the deepest reaches of his competitive soul hit him full force. He stared straight ahead and drew his lips tight, the only way he knew to keep the tears from being loosed.
''For you people who don't believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I'm sorry for you,'' Armstrong began, standing on the top step of the podium at the Tour de France for the last time. ''I'm sorry you can't dream big and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. ... There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.
''So, vive le Tour,'' he paused and added, ''Forever.''
So few champions walk away at exactly the right moment that we should applaud whenever one does with wallet and limbs intact, sublime skills undiminished, and enough time to make a dent in the fortune he collected.
That was the way baseball's Sandy Koufax and football's Jim Brown left. Ted Williams hit the 521st home run of a spectacular career in his final at-bat and John Elway retired with the MVP trophy in the second of back-to-back Super Bowl wins. And talk about going out with a bang: Rocky Marciano knocked out Archie Moore to make it 49 wins in 49 fights, then slid between the ring ropes for the final time.
That's pretty much the short list of great champions who left at the top of their game. Much longer is the one that begins with Michael Jordan, who came back twice when once would have been more than enough, and Willie Mays, who staggered under fly balls in the twilight of his career at age 42 and said sadly afterward, ''Growing old is a helpless hurt.''
In the case of Muhammad Ali and a string of boxers who didn't know when to call it quits, that became literally true.
Armstrong, on the other hand, is in no danger of damaging anything but his waistline from here on out. And when an interviewer from the Outdoor Life Network stuck a microphone in his face Sunday and asked, ''What's your next stop?'' the Texan had a ready answer.
''The retirement home,'' Armstrong quipped.
But more likely, after some serious partying Sunday night in the City of Lights, he'll be heading for the beach at Nice for more R&R and as much cold beer as his heart desires. After that, Armstrong will resume his tireless advocacy on behalf of cancer survivors and keep his hand in cycling as an owner of the Discovery Channel team. He has three young children if driving the carpool seems attractive and if Armstrong still harbors any desire to hit the road now and then, he can make good on his promise to string the guitars for rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow when she goes on tour.
The average pro cyclist logs enough training miles each year to circle the globe, and as the unprecedented seven straight wins Armstrong rolled to attest, he is anything but average. Whether he proves half as good at retirement remains to be seen, but at least he's off to a promising start.
On the April morning when Armstrong ended months of speculation about his future by announcing this would be his last Tour, he talked about how he hoped it would play out.
''Whenever I watch sport, whatever sport it may happen to be, I love to see the guy go out on top,'' he said at the time. ''I would love to do that.''
On the day he turned that longing into fact, Armstrong also talked about being inspired by champions from other sports Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and Andre Agassi and called them ''guys that you look up to, guys that have been at the top of their game for a long time.''
But in quieter moments, he's mentioned Jordan's departure and return the second time as a kind of cautionary tale. And while Gretzky appeared on the same OLN telecast of the race back in States, saying, ''the greatest time to retire for a professional athlete is when the public says, 'He could have went another year,'' he didn't take his own advice.
Armstrong knew even more intimately what happened to the quartet of five-time Tour de France champions Eddy Merckx of Belgium, Miguel Indurain of Spain and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil whose careers ended on their bikes, too old, too spent or too little prepared for the sacrifices demanded by the most grueling test in sport. Armstrong was not about to be caught out that way.
On the train ride Sunday morning to Corbeil-Essonnes, before launching on the final stage race into Paris, Armstrong demonstrated one final time he was leaving with no stone left unturned. He spotted two reporters he'd known for a while, and after first begging off from any conversation, he turned to one and said, ''I'm ready to answer your question.''
''Which question,'' he was asked.
''The one you asked me in 1999.''
The query came just before the tour started that year, the first in Armstrong's seven straight. The reporter had forgotten it.
''You asked me if I could ride the Tour,'' Armstrong said, grinning. ''I think I've answered the question.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
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