If only for a day, Lance Armstrong rode his bike like someone who really was on a tour of France.
Pedaling smoothly on the run-in to Paris, the hard work behind him, Armstrong grabbed a flute of champagne offered from his team car, took a sip and then toasted himself by clinking the glass against the lens of a TV camera that had pulled up alongside.
Moments later, he took his right hand off the handlebars and extended all five fingers toward the camera, a gesture that needed no explanation at the end of the world's greatest bicycle race. After three weeks, two mountain ranges and 2,100 miles, his life on the run was about to slow to a leisurely victory lap.
As he rode, the only visible mark on Armstrong after two crashes, bouts with stomach flu and dehydration, a handful of mishaps and a crisis of self-confidence, was a scab just below the left elbow. Soon after, with his fifth consecutive Tour de France title a fact, he slipped into the leader's yellow jersey and answered the only important question that remained.
Would he be back?
''Of course,'' Armstrong answered in French, ''I love cycling, I love my job and I will be back for a sixth.''
But hours earlier, on the morning train from Nantes to Ville d'Avray, the western Paris suburb where the 20th stage began, the Texan hadn't sounded quite so confident.
He was about to join Spanish legend Miguel Indurain as the only champion to string all five of his wins together. But getting back on his bike right after the Tour and resuming the maniacal work schedule that left rivals always riding in his slipstream was anything but a given.
''This Tour took a lot out of me,'' Armstrong said. ''I need to step back from cycling and from the races and relax a little bit and focus on 2004 in due time.''
By then he will be racing against history, and you can be sure it won't cut him much slack. For all his seeming dominance, the real edge between the Tour champion and the pack is as narrow as the tires they ride on at speeds up to 65 mph down the side of a mountain.
''When you think you're unbeatable,'' Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour winner and the first American to capture the race, wrote recently, ''the first defeat is just devastating. You think you can come back. You tell yourself as much. But you're just buying time. That first defeat changes you forever.''
It did with LeMond and Indurain and Eddy Merckx, the Belgian and five-time winner who devoured the competition with such fierceness he was nicknamed ''The Cannibal.'' Each was finally humbled in the mountains the year after their final win, none so memorably as Merckx, who ran out of gas and was passed by eventual winner Bernard Thevenet on the final climb up the Alps to Pra-Loup in 1975.
''I tried everything and it didn't work,'' Merckx said that day. ''Miracles don't exist in sports. It's always the strongest who wins.''
For now, that is Armstrong.
Like Indurain and Frenchman Bernard Hinault, he is that rare champion who can chew up the field in flat races or up and down mountains. And while he claimed only one stage win this time and the margin of victory was his narrowest ever 61 seconds over five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich Armstrong still bettered his own record for average speed by a half-second, to 25.383 mph.
''Of course it's possible,'' Indurain said about another Armstrong win. ''But every year it gets more difficult.''
Armstrong will be 32 in September, and though racers have won the Tour at that age and beyond, all the five-time winners logged their final victory before that telling birthday. To remain the strongest, he will have to remain the hungriest.
So far, motivation has been Armstrong's strongest suit. When he won the first time in 1999, he was still recovering from a deadly from of testicular cancer. Ringing in his ears was the verdict of doctors who doubted he'd ever compete at anything more strenuous than poker. In successive years, he rode to crush rumors of doping and to claim a place among those cyclists whose accomplishments merit comparison with the greatest athletes of all time in any sport.
Armstrong's training regimen has always been something only a sadist could love. He would go for months in the winter in Europe with just two days off, testing himself in the cold and wet of the mountains, then shift to the Texas heat and ring up heart and aerobic conditioning rates that flirted with the limits of human performance.
In the midst of the drug controversy that swirled around him, Armstrong's main sponsor, Nike, played off those numbers with an ad that showed him pedaling furiously down the road.
''What am I on?'' Armstrong said in the voice over. ''I'm on my bike.''
He'd better be again, and soon.
Because holding up six fingers on his way to the victory stand on the Champs-Elysee next year will be tougher than just pulling both hands off the handlebars.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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