PARIS -- Lucky for Lance Armstrong that he was wearing the brilliant yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader. Otherwise, he would have been lost from view as the sea of colorfully clad riders crossed the finish line on the Champs-Elysees.
He was in 70th place, but it hardly mattered.
Armstrong had built such a strong lead with his mastery of the mountains a week earlier that only a terrible accident could have kept him from winning his third straight Tour de France crown.
On this day of little suspense, there was one bit of drama: Would Armstrong be able to complete a victory lap? The Texas flag he was waving got caught briefly in his bike chain. He grinned sheepishly as he awaited help, then completed his ride to the cheers of the crowd.
Moments earlier, with the majestic Arc de Triomphe behind him, Armstrong had listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and smiled with satisfaction as he savored an end to three weeks of grueling racing.
"It's the best feeling of the last three (wins)," Armstrong said in faltering French. "As always I am happy to finally arrive, to finally finish the Tour. It's a special feeling."
As the only American to win three straight titles, Armstrong's ride this time had been, in some ways, the most impressive of the wins because the field that he crushed so definitively, including top rival Jan Ullrich, was in top form.
French fans, who favor their own cycling heroes and find Armstrong somewhat distant, could not hide their admiration for Armstrong's achievement.
"He's untouchable, it's true," said 43-year-old Dominique Maquet, who came to Paris from the Ardennes region near Belgium to watch the finish under a scorching July sun. "Some French people might be jealous because he's so good. But he won because he's all powerful."
"Perfect," said Pierre Couturier, a 53-year-old postman from Normandy, giving the thumbs-up sign. "Armstrong totally deserved it."
"Armstrong was magnificent," said 25-year-old Arnaud Blais of Paris after Sunday's finale. "It would have been nice for someone French to win, but they aren't strong enough."
Armstrong, who won by almost 7 minutes, both began and finished his race in the mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, where he reached perfection.
His most memorable triumph came in the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, where he bluffed Ullrich and others by grimacing in apparent pain for the TV cameras. With his fellow riders thinking he was in trouble, he caught Ullrich, took a long, hard look, then pulled ahead at stunning speed. He finished 1:59 ahead of the German and set the tone for the entire race.
After cementing his lead in the Pyrenees, gaining the coveted yellow jersey at the top of Pla d'Adet, he further tightened his grip in the flat stretches by winning the last individual time-trial.
Ullrich, who was riding in his best form since he won the Tour in 1997, was left trailing by 6:44, a deficit he carried with him to the finish line.
Like Armstrong, U.S. cyclist Greg LeMond has won the race three times, but with a two-year gap between his first and second titles.
The Tour record is five titles, but for now Armstrong says he isn't interested.
"I'm not chasing a record," he said in his final news conference Saturday. "I never thought I would get to this point.
"It was a surprise for me even to make it back to the sport," he added, referring to his comeback from advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.
Unlike previous editions of the Tour, this one was almost free of drug scandals. Questions did arise over Armstrong's working relationship with an Italian doctor whose name has been linked to doping. He again denied he's used banned substances, and said he would review his relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari.
Spanish rider Txema Del Olmo was dropped from the race by his team after testing positive to what his squad called "abnormalities."
Czech rider Jan Svorada won Sunday's stage, the 20th of a more than 2,100-mile ride through France and Belgium.
With Ullrich in second place overall and Spaniard Joseba Beloki third, the finish was identical to last year's. It was only the second time in Tour history the same riders have finished 1-2-3 in consecutive years.
"It was one of the funner victories I've had here," Armstrong said. "Definitely the strongest I've ever been, stronger than the previous two."
But there's more to come.
"I have a lot left," he said. "I love it. I love what I do. As long as the passion is there, I'll be around for years."
As for Armstrong winning over the hearts of the French - well, not yet.
"Arch-dominator," the daily Parisien newspaper called him recently. "Armstronginator," said the sports daily L'Equipe.
For his part, Armstrong has tried to warm to the crowds by speaking a mildly mangled form of French in TV interviews.
"This year I've decided to try what I can," he says of his linguistic efforts. "I've decided to be more accessible to the people and the media."
Armstrong is, indeed, treated more respectfully by the French media now than during his first Tour victory. Then, despite his moving story, some French headlines used double meanings to show disbelief that he could ride so well without the help of banned drugs.
"Hallucinating," said one.
This year, Armstrong received mostly favorable press. French TV commentators noted that Armstrong made some classy gestures during this year's race, including waiting for Ullrich when the German fell off his bike during a mountain stage.
The chief editor at L'Equipe, Jerome Bureau, explains that the French "like champions who can crack. Armstrong shows no weakness."
And, he said, the cyclist's image is changing: "Armstrong is becoming part of the great history of this race."
1991 - Miguel Indurain, Spain
1992 - Miguel Indurain, Spain
1993 - Miguel Indurain, Spain
1994 - Miguel Indurain, Spain
1995 - Miguel Indurain, Spain
1961 - Jacques Anquetil, France
1962 - Jacques Anquetil, France
1963 - Jacques Anquetil, France
1964 - Jacques Anquetil, France
1969 - Eddie Merckx, Belgium
1970 - Eddie Merckx, Belgium
1971 - Eddie Merckx, Belgium
1972 - Eddie Merckx, Belgium
1953 - Louison Bobet, France
1954 - Louison Bobet, France
1955 - Louison Bobet, France
1999 - Lance Armstrong, U.S.
2000 - Lance Armstrong, U.S.
2001 - Lance Armstrong, U.S.
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