PARIS (AP) Lance Armstrong easily won his third-straight Tour de France yesterday, ending three weeks of grueling competition with the Texan once again dominating the world”s toughest cycling event.

Paul Wong
Lance Armstrong poses with fans as he celebrates his third-straight Tour de France victory. After taking the lead in the mountain stages, Armstrong cruised for a week.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Riding in the leader”s yellow jersey he has worn for the last seven stages of the Tour, Armstrong crossed the finish line on the Champs Elysees with the main pack, winning the championship by almost seven minutes as tens of thousands of spectators lined the graceful avenue.

He held both arms aloft in triumph on the winner”s podium, smiling in satisfaction, then stepped down to embrace wife Kristin and toddler son Luke dressed in yellow like his father.

“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.”

Armstrong”s victory yesterday had not been in doubt. He had built up a huge lead in the mountains, meaning only sickness or accident could prevent him from claiming the title.

Armstrong became the first American to win the Tour three times in a row. Greg LeMond also won three Tours, but with a two-year gap between his first and second titles.

The Tour record of five wins is held jointly by four riders, with only Spain”s Miguel Indurain winning five in a row.

“The fourth (title) is still the first goal,” Armstrong said. “The Tour de France is the most beautiful, the biggest, and most special race in the world for me, and for the United States.”

The rider from Austin, Texas, who came back from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour for the first time in 1999, was close to the front of the pack when it reached the Champs-Elysees under a scorching sun.

Armstrong completed 10 laps up and down the avenue, circling the Tuileries gardens at the foot of the Louvre museum before heading back toward the Arc de Triomphe.

Czech rider Jan Svorada won yesterday”s stage between Corbeil-Essonnes and the French capital, ending a more-than 2,100-mile ride through France and Belgium in 20 legs.

Svorada was clocked in three hours, 57 minutes, 28 seconds. Germany”s Erik Zabel was second and Australian Stuart O”Grady finished third, both in the same time as the stage-winner.

Armstrong finished the stage in 70th place, also in the same time as Zabel, for a lead of 6:44 over second-placed Jan Ullrich of Germany in the overall standings. Spaniard Joseba Beloki was third, 9:05 behind the American.

Armstrong won the 1999 Tour with a 7:37 lead over Switzerland”s Alex Zuelle. In 2000 he beat Ullrich by 6:02.

The finish was identical to last year”s, only the second time in Tour history that the same riders have finished 1-2-3 in consecutive years.

Armstrong”s route to victory was sealed in just five mountain stages. And by the time he was through, Armstrong”s toughest rival, Ullrich, acknowledged defeat with a whole week to go.

“I tried everything to seek out the slightest weakness, but Lance didn”t have any,” Ullrich said after the last mountain stage.

The contest opened halfway through the Tour when riders reached the Alps.

Armstrong arrived trailing the overall leader by 22 places and fans were anxiously awaiting a sign that he had the race under control.

His title chances looked dim to many when he grimaced in apparent agony and trailed Ullrich all the way to the foot of L”Alpe d”Huez, one of the toughest climbs in cycling.

Then he began moving up through the pack until he reached the front, just ahead of Ullrich.

He looked back, then surged ahead and sprinted up the 21 hairpin bends to the summit, claiming his first stage victory and beating Ullrich by a whopping one minute, 59 seconds.

Armstrong took the yellow jersey in a gut-wrenching stretch from Foix to Pla d”Adet that featured six exceptionally difficult mountain passes.

Following a by-now familiar pattern, he let Ullrich lead for most of the race before powering ahead in the last climb and winning the stage.

Coming down from the mountains, Armstrong extended his lead further by winning the last individual time-trial, taking his fourth stage victory of the Tour, and officially capturing the race.

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