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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Expect wide open Tour in ‘06

Diane Pucin Los Angeles Times

PARIS – A Gallic grunt and a shrug of his shoulders said it all.

Bernard Pevanensce of Grenoble takes a week of vacation each summer to follow the Tour de France. He is 44, he said, and owns a small business. He loves to attend the mountain stages, and if he can manage, Pevanensce travels to the nearby Alps and to the Pyrenees every year.

He stakes out a spot on the side of the road. He will camp, usually with friends. He likes to be close, to see, he said, “the eyes bulge and the faces turn red.” The Tour is his favorite sporting event because, Pevanensce said, “It is so French. It is ours.”

And he says something else: “I am glad Lance Armstrong is retiring.”

It is not because Pevanensce is anti-American. It is not that he doesn’t appreciate Armstrong’s accomplishments, especially the record-setting seven consecutive championships.

“But he is just too good,” Pevanensce said, “and the competition has become boring. There is no more drama.”

Armstrong, the 33-year-old Texan whose courageous recovery from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs morphed into an athletic drama of mythic proportions, retired Sunday.

This year’s was perhaps the least dramatic of Armstrong’s string of victories.

“Numbers one and six are pretty special,” Armstrong said. “Ask me in 10 years about this one. But there’s no reason to continue. I don’t need more. It’s time for a new face, time for a new story.”

On both sides of the ocean there is no argument. Armstrong has attracted new fans from the U.S. to the world’s most famous cycling race. While there is no official crowd count at an event where tickets aren’t sold and seats aren’t available, there has been a growing presence of American flag holders along country roadsides and more thorough media coverage. What used to be a weekend update highlight show is now live daily coverage of the Tour on the Outdoor Life Network.

Philippe Sudres, a spokesman for the Tour de France organization said that the Armstrong phenomenon in the U.S. isn’t much different from what has happened in other countries. He said that when Spain’s Miguel Indurain, the only man other than Armstrong to win five consecutive Tours, retired, there was concern that the Spanish interest in the race would wane or that the Tour would suffer without a recognizable name.

“Obviously,” Sudres said, “that didn’t happen. New people took over.”

Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour’s director, said that while Armstrong indeed has helped popularize the Tour in the U.S., “we must also remember that the Tour had a long history before Mr. Armstrong and it will have a long history after. I think the Tour de France has also given Lance something special, too.”

When Armstrong rode an emphatically strong opening-day time trial and put nearly a minute between himself and top contenders such as runner-up Ivan Basso, 1997 champion and five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich, 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloden and brash Alexandre Vinokourov (who finished third in 2003), talk turned quickly to next year.

Bjarne Riis, 1996 Tour winner and team director of Basso’s team CSC, said at the end of the first week that he was eager for next year.

“I think in 2006 it will be a great and interesting tactical race,” he said. “We won’t know how each stage will play out. I think there will be much more attacking as the new contenders try to sort themselves out.”

One of the first things Armstrong will be watching is who replaces him as the team leader. Fellow American George Hincapie, 32, who rode with Armstrong for all seven of his titles, won a Tour stage for the first time this year and prompted Armstrong to twice tout Hincapie as a future Tour winner. Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel said the 25-year-old Yaroslav Popovych, who won the young rider competition, is a possibility.

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