Cycling: Armstrong's exit leaves Planet Tour without glamour or centre of gravity

Retirement of American legend after seventh successive Tour victory will leave a gaping void, writes Alasdair Fotheringham

For one of them, Lance Armstrong, the victory lap has lasted for three weeks. Cynics might add that this Tour, his chosen way of bowing out from one of cycling's most memorable careers, has become little more than a 3,600-kilometre ego trip.

In fact, rather than Armstrong becoming part of the Tour's history, so successful has he been - seven victories, 83 days in the yellow jersey and 22 stage wins - that the Tour, the biggest annual sporting event on the planet, has become simply a chapter in the Armstrong story.

In the process, the American with the rock star girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, has been credited, rightly, for taking the Tour beyond the barriers of sport. Most notably it has been enlisted inthe battle against cancer, but has also pricked the interest of multi-nationals like Nike, as well as straying into the realms of Hollywood and even into the consciousness of the American people, usually scoffed at for their insularity and for whom cycling was previously an obscure European sport.

Hence yesterday, as the riders roared up and down the Champs-Elysées, Paris's central boulevard was awash with Americans, many clutching the best-selling book in the United States, The Tour de France for Dummies, under one arm and proudly wearing "Livestrong" yellow charity wristbands - of which 50 million have been sold worldwide - on the other.

Most visible of all were Hollywood players like Michael Keaton and Matt Damon, royalty in the shape of Prince Albert of Monaco, politicians such as John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate. The wristbands came courtesy of one of Armstrong's paymasters, Nike, who have gone on record as saying that Armstrong is as profitable a commercial venture as any basketball player. Now that's success.

"TV audiences in the States have risen by 30 per cent and people there now say 'Lance' like they'd also say Michael [Jordan], Shaq [O'Neal] or Tiger [Woods]," Dan Osipow, the spokesman for Discovery Channel, Armstrong's team, said.

But as Armstrong's star has risen, so life on Planet Tour has become mono-tonous, empty of feeling, overshadowed by the monster it has helped create.

Ever since Armstrong took the jersey at Courchevel nearly a fortnight ago, almost every stage has had the same weary formula of a break of riders - of no threat to Armstrong - going up the road unchallenged.

"You see him talking into his race radio when riders attack, saying 'this one yes, this one no, this one's OK, don't let him go'. It's total control," Joseba Beloki, who has stood on the podium in Paris three times alongside the Texan, said recently.

It was symptomatic of the Tour's general malaise that in Armstrong's final press conference on Saturday, following his only stage win of the 2005 race (in the time trial at St-Etienne), that not one question was asked about the American's actual physical performance that day. Armstrong, it seems, is way beyond being queried about his mere athletic capabilities.

An accomplished speaker, Armstrong hesitated only once when asked which of his Tours was the most important. "Ask me in 10 years' time," he countered, before finally venturing, "the first [1999], the third [2001], and the sixth [2005]." Why? In those three Tours, it turns out he had more axes to grind than in the others.

His 1999 win marked his comeback from cancer, the proof that he had overcome those who said he was finished. At his final press conference six years ago, he said he dedicated 50 per cent of his win to those with cancer, 25 per cent to himself and 25 per cent to those who had not believed in him.

In 2001, where he raced at his most flamboyant, he rode against what he defined as the "cynics and the zealots" - those who dared to raise the issue of doping after he had revealed that he was working with the controversial - and subsequently banned - Italian doctor Michele Ferrari.

He responded as he only knows how - by obliterating the field at Alpe D'Huez and Pla D'Adet - and in a memorable rest-day press conference, he told journalists "you're like the weather - if it rains, I wear a raincoat. If not, then not." Hurricane Lance then stormed out of the room and won the race by a country mile.

Last year was his chance to make history by becoming the first to six. There were, as he said, "no gifts" to other riders; he gobbled up stage wins - three in the Alps, one in the Pyrenees, and the final time trial. The message was plain: don't mess with Texas.

And the aims of No 7? "To go out with my head high and with my children watching me win," he said.

For the Tour de France, the retirement of someone as influential as Armstrong it is like losing its centre of gravity. Next year's Tour will be "like an epic without its hero", the French sports newspaper L'Equipe declared recently.

But if the Tour will lose much of its transatlantic, multi-national glamour, it will return to being just a European-orientated cycling race. And after seven years of absolute power, and with the near certainty that he could have won at least one more, that will be perhaps Armstrong's most enduring legacy, a final, unintentional contribution to the sport: his absence.

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