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Glory days over as a cycling legend quits.

Byline: By Scot Dougal

Lance Armstrong retired from cycling yesterday after winning a seventh Tour de France title and still at the height of his powers.

The Texan, who turns 34 in September, made a last grand entrance to Paris after three weeks in which he has been as dominant as at any time since he won his first tour six years ago.

He finished four minutes, 40 seconds ahead of the Italian Ivan Basso while Jan Ullrich was third, six minutes 21 seconds away from first place.

Armstrong described it as a "dream podium," paying tribute to both men ( Ullrich, who has finished second to him on three occasions, and Basso, who is widely tipped as the man most likely to next year.

"This is the guy (Ullrich) that has challenged me and our team," said Armstrong. "He's a special rival and a special person. Ivan, he's too good a friend to race against and he's perhaps the future of the Tour de France."

Because of cycling's continuing battle against doping, any winner of any race faces allegations and rumours.

And, as the most successful cyclist of the last 30 years, Armstrong has faced more than most.

However, he made a passionate defence of his sport yesterday, telling the huge crowd on the Champs Elysees: "To the cynics and the sceptics, I'm sorry you cannot dream big, I'm sorry you cannot believe in miracles.

"You should believe in these athletes. This is a hard sporting event and only hard work wins it. Vive le Tour forever."

Armstrong has certainly worked hard over the last three weeks but over the 20th stage, the only dangers that remained to him were the French roads, made greasy by the damp conditions.

There was a warning on the approach to Paris when a crash just in front of him threatened to bring him down.

But he navigated clear of danger and the final 144.5km of an extraordinary career passed safely with Armstrong well protected by his Discovery team-mates.

The honour of winning the final stage of the 2005 Tour went to the T-Mobile rider Alexander Vinokourov, the champion of Kazakhstan and a rider known for his quixotic approach.

On this occasion his daring paid off as he surged clear of the peloton in pursuit of Brad McGee before powering past the Australian on the final circuit. But all of the attention was on Armstrong. He is reported to be in better condition now than he was when he completed his inspiring comeback from testicular cancer by winning the 1999 Tour.

So it is regrettable he is retiring now when an eighth Tour and some of cycling's other great honours would seem to be within his reach.

However, he has plenty to keep him busy with three children, the Lance Armstrong Foundation and his continued involvement in the Discovery team he co-owns.

While the Texan's future is mapped out for him, what happens to cycling now remains unclear. Armstrong stimulated unprecedented interest in the sport across the world, particularly in the United States.

Whether cycling can keep the attention of the world's biggest market place in his absence is unknown.

For his rivals, however, his exit is a chance to take some of the limelight ( an attitude summed up by McGee. "I'm proud I rode in the Armstrong era," he said.

"But I'm not saying I'm disappointed he's leaving because it opens up doors."

Stage 21, 144km from Corbeil-Essonnes to Paris: 1 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile Team 3hours 40mins 57secs, 2 Bradley McGee (Aus) Franiaise Des Jeux, 3 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Fassa Bortolo, 4 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto, 5 Stuart O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis, Le Credit Par Telephone, 6 Allan Davis (Aus) Liberty Seguros-Wrth, 7 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole, 8 Baden Cooke (Aus) Franiaise Des Jeux, 9 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) Franiaise Des Jeux, 10 Robert FUrster (Ger) Gerolsteiner.

Final Overall Positions: 1 Lance Armstrong (USA) Discovery Channel 86hours 15mins 2secs, 2 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC at 4min 40secs, 3 Jan Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile Team at 6.21, 4 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne at 9.59, 5 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile Team at 11.01, 6 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner at 11.21, 7 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank at 11.33, 8 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto at 11.55, 9 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems at 12.44, 10 Oscar Pereiro Sio (Spa) Phonak Hearing Systems at 16.04.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 25, 2005
Words:739
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