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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
It was the day that everyone knew was coming for some time now. But the sight of American Lance Armstrong finally standing atop the podium as the first rider to win the Tour de France six times, gave everyone a chance to take in the history that he had now made real.
Obviously, one of the first to be swept up by the occasion was the person who called Armstrong on his mobile telephone just as he stepped off the winners’ podium. Tongues were wagging like new-born puppies as to who it could be.
“Winning my first Tour (in 1999) was special; but this is unbelievable,” said Armstrong.
So happy was Armstrong, that when asked by a French television reporter trying in vain to draw parallels to American astronaut Neil Armstrong he answered the somewhat stupid question: “Is it more important to walk on the moon or win the Tour?” An ever-beaming Armstrong — the bike rider — was happy to oblige.
“Walking on the moon. After all, this is only sport,” Armstrong said with a smile.
On any other day such a ridiculous question would probably have drawn frowns and bewilderment (and justifiably) rather than the friendly response. For Armstrong, it was a sign that he seemed to enjoy this year’s Tour more than any other.
“I think the biggest difference is in my head, the morale and the motivation, the pure joy of racing,” he said. “It’s as if I was with my five friends and we were 13 years old and we all had new bikes and we said: ‘Okay, we’re going to race from here to there.’ You want to beat your friends more than anything. You’re sprinting and you’re attacking. It was like that for me this year, a simple pleasure.”
Like Armstrong, his U.S. Postal team rode into Paris like warriors who had conquered. Their tops and shorts were also emblazoned with bright yellow bands to match the yellow of Armstrong’s maillot jaune. But the day was not just about Armstrong….
The prestige sprint
There was still the 163km stage 20 from Montereau to Paris to win, and the green jersey as the Tour’s best sprinter and points category winner. Despite the intent of some, both of those classifications went to different people.
Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step) took the stage and fourth-placed Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) kept the green jersey he had worn for so long.
Boonen’s victory over last year’s final stage winner, Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon (AG2R) and German Danilo Hondo (Gerolsteiner) was his second for the Tour after winning stage 6 in Angers.
Meanwhile, the two contenders for the green jersey, McEwen and Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) met varying fortunes.
McEwen was disappointed with his fourth place, but that was still easily good enough for him to clinch the green jersey for the second time of his career after his breakthrough win in 2002.
Hushovd, who started the day 11 points behind McEwen, lost his line and position in the last, always tricky right turn going into the finishing straight with 400 meters to go. After placing 16th, he still finished second in the points table; but 25 points behind McEwen whose Tour ended with him scoring 272 points.
For Armstrong, who cruised home in 114th place 19 seconds back, it was without doubt his easiest day in the saddle.
Simeoni’s last tweak
Well, it wasn’t a totally drama-free day. There was still some sting in the tail of the Tour with the antics of Italian Filippo Simeoni (Domina Vacanze), who seemed intent on again upsetting Armstrong with three attacks.
At odds with Armstrong — in and out of court — over their varying claims regarding doping in general, Dr Michele Ferrari and, most recently, in this year’s Tour about each other, Simeoni first attacked at the very start.
His break from the pack, just as photographers were taking shots of the respective jersey wearers, lasted 8km until U.S. Postal brought him back It did not earn him many votes as popular rider of the day, although later he received one special accolade (read on).
It was especially so on a stage that has traditionally started as a slow procession and has not livened up into serious racing until the peloton hits the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
And the stage did liven up. After Postal led the race onto the famed boulevard, the first hand grenade came from Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (La Boulangère). His attack prompted a chase by McEwen and Hushovd as the second intermediate sprint approached at the top of the Champs-Elysées at 115.5km.
That sprint was won by Hushovd, just ahead of Chavanel and McEwen. This made the margin between the Norwegian and Australian just nine points going into the last sprint at the Tour. McEwen had earlier drawn away from Hushovd by two points after bagging six points to Hushovd’s four at the first sprint after 86.5km.
But soon after, Simeoni again attacked, not once but three times. Each time he was brought back, and each time by the Postal riders. The reaction of one ‘Postie’, Viatcheslav Ekimov who knocked his forehead as he looked at Simeoni when they caught him, more than revealed what they thought of him.
Ironically, Simeoni was later given the Classement de la Combativité award (most aggressive rider in the stage) and by none other than former five-time Tour champion, Frenchman Bernard Hinault, who sided with Armstrong when the Texan chased him down in stage 18 to Lons le Saunier last Friday in revenge for the Italian’s remarks about Ferrari.
The main break of the day was a 10-strong one and basically grafted its way up and down the Champs-Élysées to gain a maximum lead of 43 seconds before being caught with less than 10km to go.
Leading the chase for their respective sprinters were Cofidis (Stuart O’Grady), FDjeux.com (Baden Cooke), T-Mobile (Erik Zabel) and Liberty Seguros (Allan Davis). And their aim of securing a bunch sprint was assured upon passing the bell with one lap to go.
Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) was away in a short-lived attack, but the ominous shadow of the peloton driven by the Quick Step train was indication enough that his move was suicidal.
Charging back down from the Arc du Triomphe, the pace was breakneck; and just as frenetic up front as various teams started to position their bolters for positions as the stage neared the vital final corner that is so difficult to judge.
As the pack came sweeping left across the Place de la Concorde and then back to the right for the straight run to the finish line, the principal victim was Hushovd. As has happened so many times to riders in the past, he took the last left turn too wide and found himself adrift from the frontline pace, his stage and green jersey hopes dashed.
The final sprint was typically a hectic one as the pure sprinters jostled to get through the traffic of less-rapid opportunists, who were having their last roll of the dice.
Boonen was clearly the strongest though and he even had time to raise his arms aloft with a smile as bright as the sun that baked the Champs on Sunday evening.
Then again, after any Tour, it isn’t hard to find a smile. Knowing that the 3391km of torture was now over for another year was more than good enough reason to grin for the surviving pack of 147 riders.
Armstrong said he always felt as though he was in control of the race, though he gave less credit to his own abilities than to the strength of his team and the shortcomings of his adversaries.
“Fortunately we were always in control of the race,” he said. “Anytime the race was dangerous, we controlled the race, on the cobblestones, in the team time trial, during the first, second and third week of the race.”
And while Armstrong said he felt strong, he added: “I was never able to ride away alone on the climbs. That’s the first time I didn’t do that, but I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better. Some of them just completely disappeared.”
Part of the problem, he suggested, was that the men he originally saw as his main competition for the overall victory were not all-rounders, able to race powerfully on every type of terrain.
“Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo are similar kind of riders, while Ullrich is different because he is a tall, big guy,” he said. “Physically, the first week is not so stressful and tiresome for him, whereas the little guys, the pure climbers like Mayo and Tyler, have to fight for position and suffer in the wind and during the acceleration through villages near the finish. This becomes a problem for them after 10 days.
“However, that’s the beauty of the Tour. You have to do it all.”
To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply open our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.
Here’s a look at the Tour greats, from the five-time winners to the newly crowned six-time champ: