PARIS - Lance Armstrong rode into history Sunday by winning the Tour de France for a record sixth time, an achievement that confirmed him as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. His sixth crown in six dominant years elevated Armstrong above four champions who won five times.
And never in its 101-year-old history has the Tour had a winner like Armstrong - a Texan who just eight years ago was given less than a 50 percent chance of overcoming testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.
Armstrong's unbeaten streak since 1999 has helped reinvigorate the greatest race in cycling, steering it into the 21st century. And the Tour, as much a part of French summers as languid meals over chilled rose, molded Armstrong into a sporting superstar.
No. 6. The record. The achievement was almost too much even for Armstrong to comprehend.
"It might take years. I don't know. It hasn't sunk in yet. But six, standing on the top step on the podium on the Champs-Elysees is really special," he said.
For him, Sunday's final ride into Paris and its famous tree-lined boulevard was a lap of honor he savored with a glass of champagne in the saddle. Even Jan Ullrich, his main adversary in previous years who had his worst finish this Tour, gulped down a glass offered by Armstrong's team manager through his car window.
Belgian rider Tom Boonen won the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees, with Armstrong cruising safely behind with the trailing pack to claim his crown. Armstrong's winning margin over second-placed Andreas Kloden was 6 minutes, 19 seconds, with Italian Ivan Basso in third at 6:40. Ullrich finished fourth.
Armstrong opened a new page for the Tour in 1999 just one year after the race faced its worst doping scandal, ejecting the Festina team after police caught one of its employees with a stash of drugs.
Armstrong's victories and his inspiring comeback from cancer have drawn new fans to the race. His professionalism, attention to detail, grueling training methods and tactics have raised the bar for other riders hoping to win the three-week cycling marathon.
Eye-catching in the bright yellow race leader's jersey he works so hard for, Armstrong donned a golden cycling helmet for Sunday's relaxed roll past sun-baked fields of wheat and applauding spectators into Paris from Montereau in the southeast.
He joked and chatted with teammates who wore special blue jerseys with yellow stripes. They stretched in a line across the road with their leader for motorcycle-riding photographers to record the moment. The team was the muscle behind Armstrong's win, leading him up grueling mountain climbs, shielding him from crashes and wind, and keeping him stoked with drinks and food.
With five solo stage wins and a team time-trial victory with his U.S. Postal Service squad, this was Armstrong's best Tour. He built his lead from Day 1, placing second in the third-fastest debut time trial in Tour history.
That performance silenced doubts that Armstrong, at 32, was past his prime. Even more so than in other Tours that he dominated, Armstrong finished off rivals in the mountains - with three victories in the Alps, including a time trial on the legendary climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, and another in the Pyrenees. He also took the final time trial on Saturday, even though he his overall lead was so big he didn't need the win.