It seemed like only yesterday. A then 27 year-old American by the name of Lance Armstrong standing on the Paris podium, arm across his chest, eyes looking skywards, ears listening to the tune of the star-spangled banner as he basked in the glow of his first Tour victory.
Now it's suddenly seven. Seven Tour de France victories. And seven in a row.
But before that, let's relive the incredible move from Alexandre Vinokourov, who took the final stage of the 92nd Tour de France and left a plethora of sprinters baffled. With 1,500 metres to go, the Kamikaze Kazakhstani dived towards the wheel the lone breakaway Bradley McGee (La Française des Jeux), and although he struggled to get there, Vino still found the energy to sail right past the Sydneysider and Fabian Cancellara for a truly rabbit-out-of-hat win.
"That was victory made of courage and guts - I really gave it all in the last kilometres, although I didn't think it was possible until I crossed the line," said an ecstatic Vinokourov."
"I just went 'à bloc' - it's unbelievable, magnificent! I have no words for it... I did think a lot about Kivilev yesterday in St. Etienne, and I think that motivated me even more. I'm very happy to win."
Although he was up against a very formidable opponent, McGee came very close to pulling off another Tour de France stage win, as he recalled to Cyclingnews. "It was never planned; it was look after the boys, but in the closing stages, it was one of the moves we discussed. I had to go across [to Vinokourov and Krivtsov]; I had to hit him and I did, because I was coming from behind, but he [Vinokourov] just had it all in his favour, you know," he said.
McGee noticed that Vinokourov struggled to get on his wheel, and that motivated him: "Yeah, I hit it hard out of the corner because I've seen the guys coming from behind; I imagined Vino had a bit of acid in his legs - he's been stomping pretty hard these last three weeks - so I just looked at the finish line, put it in the 11 and went for it. I was surprised when he came off me - he came off quite quick. I saw him [Vinokourov] in the sprint, but he wouldn't do it [come around]; he stayed 10 metres off me... he put on a good face. [alluding to bluff - ed.]"
A few seconds later there was Lance Armstrong, the now 33 year-old American bearing the same name, the same pedaling style, and virtually the same face - maybe looking a tad older - rolled across the line, buoyed in the company of his team-mates, with best biking buddy and ever-faithful lieutenant George Hincapie by his side. Victory was his.
"It was hard for me, hard for my team of course. Basso...has been a great rival. It's tough to race against him, he's too much of a friend. He's perhaps the future of the Tour de France. So, Ivan: next year, this is your step; or Jan: this might be your step next year, I don't know, but I'm outta here, so... I couldn't have done it without my team, who has the best sponsor, programme, trainer, best doctors and all of that for so many years," said Armstrong to a captivated audience, lined six-deep on the Champs Elysées.
Number seven was perhaps his easiest win. Both he and his director Johan Bruyneel admitted this time around, the only pressure Armstrong had was the pressure he placed upon himself. "It's just something I had within myself as a sportsman, I wanted to go out on top. That was the only incentive and that was the only pressure," he said.
But that was more than enough pressure to win again. Right from day one, when he lost the opening time trial to a former team-mate, David Zabriskie, Armstrong got angry. When CSC director Bjarne Riis said he thought the Discovery Channel team for the Tour was strong, but not as strong as in the past, he got even angrier, his team proving the Dane wrong in the team time trial and earning himself the maillot jaune. And after the stage first mountain stage to Courchevel, where the Texan regained the golden fleece after losing it for a day to Jens Voigt, he never looked like giving it back.
As the 33 year-old said after his time trial win yesterday in Saint-Etienne, "There's no reason to continue. It's time for a new face, it's time for a new story - no regrets."
But who is this new face?
Is it the not-so-new face of 1997 champion and this year's third overall Jan Ullrich, who would have surely won at least another two Tours had Armstrong not arrived? Or is it second-placed Ivan Basso, the 27 year-old Italian continuing to improve markedly year after year, and is now very much the complete Grand Tour rider? Or will there be a surprise winner? Take your pick from maillot blanc Yaroslav Popovych, Alexandre Vinokourov, Cadel Evans, Floyd Landis, Andrei Kashechkin or even maillot à pois Michael Rasmussen - that's if he manages to stay on his bike...
Basso told Cyclingnews at the end, "The best thing about this Tour is that I got better and better throughout and have always improved the last four years at the Tour. It's a race that I like and I feel good about. However, now I have to try and win the next year's Tour."
While Der Jan is already thinking about 2006, saying: "I hope I'll be back, I will try!"
How it unfolded
Today's early afternoon start was welcomed by all, but not so welcome was the intermittent rain that preceded the 1.45pm kick-off in Corbeil-Essonnes. Apart from the final eight laps of six and half kilometres, it was always going to be a lazy run-in to Paris, but the lack of sunshine made for an even lazier beginning.
After the ceremonial passing of champagne within the peloton, along with Armstrong saying his goodbyes to riders, team-managers and whoever else he wanted to say au revoir to - which seemed to take a good two hours - the six-time, soon to be seven-time winner also decided he wanted the last mountain prime of the day at the Côte de Gif-sur-Yvette, coming after 57 kilometres.
Some 18 kilometres later, things took an interesting twist. Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile), sixth overall at the start of the day but only by two seconds from Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), attacked one and a half kilometres out from the first sprint prime at Chatenay-Malabry and took line honours ahead of Leipheimer, placing both on equal time. On a count-back, the American still led by a fraction of a second, but as it turned out, it was not for long.
As the peloton wound its way to Paris, Française Des Jeux's Philippe Gilbert decided he wanted a bit of TV time, prompting a Discovery-led chase but also resulting in George Hincapie and Yaroslav Popovych sliding out on a tight right-hand corner. Although unhurt, the race jury intelligently decided the rules for a wet finish in Paree would be applied, with the overall time for each rider taken on the first pass of the Champs Elysées. However, to keep the audience on the feet for the finale, the final eighth lap would still determine the stage winner, with 20, 12 and 8 bonus seconds still on offer for first to third respectively.
Naturally, as 155 riders remaining in this year's race hit the Place de la Concorde and the sun slowly seeped through the clouds, a series of escapes began. There were none were too serious until six laps to go, when a 10-man move broke clear, comprised of: Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak), Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Cafitta), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), the ever-combative Carlos Da Cruz, Cedric Vasseur (Cofidis), Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Michael Albasini (Liquigas-Bianchi), and Domina Vacanze's Andrei Grivko and Alessandro Vanotti.
The break reached a maximum lead of around 30 seconds until Davitamon-Lotto was largely responsible for bringing them back with 24 kilometres left to race. Servais Knaven (Quick.Step-Innergetic) was next to go, albeit only briefly, before team-mate Bram Tankink countered, taking with him Saunier Duval's Chris Horner, the pair doing almost two laps on their on own.
That regrouping took the race down to the nine kilometre mark. Then, some six kilometres later, the crowd saw the start of what turned out to be the surprise winning move...
Laurent Brochard's (Bouygues Telecom) first attack was chased by Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile), who flew past the Frenchman, taking Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r-Prevoyance) and Brad McGee (Française Des Jeux) with him. McGee then countered and got away, only to see the never-say-die figure of Vinokourov clawing his way back to him under the flamme rouge. The Kazakhstani struggled to bridge, but then feigned his real legs, sitting 10 metres back from the Sydneysider before shooting through for a magnificent win, and as a consequence, doing more than enough to end the race fifth overall.
See also:The good old days: Lance finishes on top