PARIS (AP) – Lance Armstrong is gone. What now for the Tour de France?

For one, it should be a more closely contested race next year, with former champion Jan Ullrich and emerging new rivals battling for the yellow jersey.

“Without Armstrong here, everyone’s going to think they’ve got the Holy Grail,” American rider Chris Horner said. “I think it might be more nervous in the beginning. There’ll be all the speculation. Instead of talking about Armstrong’s next victory, they’ll be talking about the next guy to win.”

The 33-year-old Texan retired Sunday after his record seventh consecutive victory in cycling’s showcase event.

“He contributed to the myth of the Tour,” deputy race director Christian Prudhomme said. “Next year the suspense will be far higher, there will no longer be a huge favorite. The boss who ruled the Tour de France will be gone.”

His departure offers hope to Ullrich, the 1997 champion from Germany who has been a five-time runner-up – three times to Armstrong. He finished third this month, but will be 32 next year and knows it could be his last chance to win another title. Italian rider Ivan Basso, who finished third in 2004 and second this year, is another potential champion.

“With Ivan, we have a rider who can win,” said Basso’s Team CSC director Bjarne Riis. “He is the one to become Armstrong’s successor.”

Also in contention should be Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, the third-place finisher in 2003 and winner of Sunday’s final stage. He has left Ullrich’s T-Mobile team because he wants a team built around him next year.

And there’s Alejandro Valverde, a talented young Spaniard who beat Armstrong in a sprint finish on an Alpine climb to the ski resort of Courchevel on stage 10.

“A guy like him – I’m not blowing smoke – could be the future of cycling,” Armstrong said.

Italian rider Damiano Cunego, 23, missed the race with an illness but will be expected to challenge soon.

Then there’s Armstrong’s Discovery Channel teammate Yaroslav Popovych. He won the white jersey awarded to this year’s best young rider.

“We cannot replace Lance,” team director Johan Bruyneel said. “There is not a second one in line to really step up. Being the next leader is difficult.”

Armstrong, meanwhile, is expected to play a prominent advisory role to Bruyneel next year and could have a hand in developing another Tour winner. “He’s created a very calculated way of winning,” American rider Fred Rodriguez said. “I don’t see why he’s not going to continue the legacy.”

Among the top American riders are Armstrong’s teammate George Hincapie and former teammate Floyd Landis, as well as Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie.

“For the American public to stay interested in cycling and the Tour they have to have an American guy,” Armstrong said. “That’s the only way I think it crosses over to the big-time press and the networks.”

Back home, Armstrong’s performances led to a huge boost in television ratings. He conquered a primarily European sport his own way and brought it into living rooms across America. During this year’s Tour, the OLN network – which held exclusive TV rights – reported its prime-time ratings had tripled over the network’s usual programming. Race coverage overall was up 18 percent over last year, spokeswoman Amy Phillips said. “Next year will be the trial year, to see if we can sustain the interest,” said Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong’s.

now working for OLN.

Armstrong’s impact on the Tour has been unquestionable. Rocked by the 1998 Festina doping scandal, the event was on its knees and needed rescuing.

Along came Armstrong a year later – who beat cancer and then went on to dominate the world’s toughest race like no one before.

He redefined the Tour with his meticulous attention to detail, indomitable will to win, ruthlessness and uncanny ability in motivating teammates to work for his cause.

“He’s physically more capable than anyone else out there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s whatever you’re born with – genetics, the mental capacity, the body. He has the best team, the best technology, the fastest bikes. He’s done everything he can to know he’s 100 percent.”

Armstrong won two more titles than any other rider in the 102-year history of the race – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain all won five – but his manner of victory bothered some purists.

“His only concern was the yellow jersey, whereas Merckx and Hinault were more like cannibals and wanted to win stages as well,” Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said.

Often reproached for focusing only on winning the Tour, Armstrong used other races simply as preparation for the French event.

“You cannot say the Tour was overwhelmed with suspense,” Prudhomme said. “The paradox is he crushed his rivals.”

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