On the toughest stretch of road, during the toughest stage of what is arguably the toughest sporting event in the world, Lance Armstrong put the hammer down and roared toward the top of L'Alpe d'Huez. It was a move of such breathtaking power that most of his rivals would have had trouble matching it while driving a car, let alone pedaling a bike.
It was also the stuff of legend.
It was Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee; Tiger Woods devouring Augusta National with his ''A'' game; Michael Jordan eyeballs-level-with-the-rim at his gravity-defying best; Jim Brown hauling a scrum of would-be tacklers into the end zone; Babe Ruth calling his shot.
Take your pick, since the easiest way to start an argument in any sports bar the world over is to do just that.
''Top three athletes of all time, without a doubt, and maybe even higher,'' said Bud Greenspan, the venerable documentary filmmaker of countless Olympics.
''He keeps on winning, keeps on getting better, and what more can you ask from the man? The only drawback, it seems to me, is where his sport fits in the world of athletics.''
On Sunday, at the end of bicycle racing's version of the Super Bowl, the 32-year-old Texan rolled into the French capital on what amounted to a ceremonial lap to claim an unprecedented sixth Tour de France title. The five-deep crowds packing both sides of the Champs-Elyses shouted, stomped and whistled their approval as Armstrong easy to pick out in the leader's distinctive yellow jersey zoomed by in the middle of the technicolor blur.
But it was four days earlier, as crowds nearly twice that large lined the road that ended at a ski station 6,070 feet above sea level, that Armstrong secured the win and cemented his place in the galaxy of the world's greatest athletes.
On an ascent that's so steep it is classified as ''hors categorie,'' literally, ''out of category,'' Armstrong rose up on his pedals and averaged averaged 14.5 mph. The feat crushed his opponents' spirits and paved the way for Armstrong to ride past the quartet of cycling's five-time Tour champions Eddy Merckx of Belgium, Miguel Indurain of Spain and local heroes Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil and begin a fresh chapter in the 101-year history of the race.
''It's special to stand on arguably one of the most famous boulevards in the world and have your own national anthem played. And to have it done six times,'' Armstrong said, ''is incredible.''
The man is a dynasty. There's no arguing that, even if he doesn't return for a seventh bid. His wins have all come in a row, and at an age when all the other cycling legends were done dominating the Tour.
Although his U.S. Postal Service team is one of the best, smoothest-running outfits ever assembled in the sport, it's unimaginable that Armstrong would hang on long enough to match the eight straight NBA titles won by the Boston Celtics of the late 1950s and '60s. But that hardly matters because cycling, when you boil it down, remains an individual pursuit.
In that sense, it's better to measure his six-year run alongside the career achievements of a few other athletes:
Hurdler Edwin Moses was unbeaten over 400 meters for 10 years, a streak of 107 races;
Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano put away 49 straight opponents, retiring unbeaten;
Baseball's Cal Ripken played in 2,632 games stretched over 17 seasons, the last few in an era when some players went on the injured list if the wrong brand of shampoo was put in the visiting locker room;
Martina Navratilova won six straight Wimbledon tennis titles from 1982 to 1987;
Hockey's Wayne Gretzky collected eight scoring titles; Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain seven each in pro basketball, and all picked up a few championships besides.
There's no such thing as an inclusive list and whether Armstrong gets his due will depend ultimately, on whom you ask. Some fans, after all, are sure to argue that all he does is ride a bike.
And so those who contend hitting a 95-plus mph fastball with a stick is the toughest thing to do, won't even rank his accomplishment alongside Joe DiMaggio's 56-game, single-season hitting streak. And those who believe hitting a stationary ball with a walking stick turned upside down will throw Byron Nelson's 11 consecutive PGA Tour wins in one season atop Armstrong's feat.
Because there are no rules, ultimately it comes down to arguments. What no one can dispute is that Armstrong, like every great champion stretching from Ruth in the Jazz Age to Woods today, has slipped the bonds of his sport and soared into the public imagination. The greatest don't just dominate a game, they grow it and change the way it's played and perceived.
Sales of Trek bicycles, the brand Armstrong rides, have tripled since he won his first title in 1999 and the $10,000, carbon-fiber, 24-carat, gold-leaf-adorned model he rode onto the Champs-Elyses won't hit the stores for another few months. Similarly, Armstrong has forced millions of TV viewers back in the States to zap through their cable menus and find the Outdoor Life Network.
And how's this for an impact: He's even given the Post Office something to finally crow about.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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