By TIM REYNOLDS
ITHOUT FAIL, IT HAPPENS daily at this time of year. Someone, typically middle-aged and at least a wee bit out of shape, ambles into Lance Armstrong's favorite bike shop and professes to be "just looking."
And a few minutes later, that person wheels away a bicycle -- the first one he's owned in, perhaps, decades.
There's no simpler example of the legacy Armstrong has created and will leave behind today, when -- barring some sort of catastrophe -- he takes his last victory laps along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where hundreds of thousands are likely to watch him wrap up his seventh, and final, Tour de France title.
"The business is a nice reward, but the best thing is still that a home boy is in the Tour de France," says Ken "Woody" Smith, manager of the Richardson Bike Mart in Richardson, Texas -- a store that builds an annual shrine to Armstrong, complete with authentic yellow jerseys and other mementos.
"He's made cancer survivors out of people. He's got people who don't look like bike riders buying bikes. He inspires everyone to do more, to be better."
USA Cycling, the sport's national governing body, says more Americans are riding bicycles these days than ever before -- a direct correlation to Armstrong's popularity. And the stable of professional riders in this country may have the most depth and talent in history, in large part because Armstrong raised the bar so high.
Without question, when the Texan pedals away he'll leave cycling better than when he found it.
"But I don't know what happens next," says John Sabatier, a director of the rapidly growing Everglades Bicycling Club in South Florida, "and that scares me to death."
Since Armstrong -- who is retiring at the end of this race to devote more time to his family -- won his first Tour in 1999, membership in officially sanctioned road-cycling clubs has risen more than 20 percent. Bicycle shops nationwide report higher business, with a distinct spike every summer around Tour time.
Sabatier estimates that his club has seen a 40 percent jump in members since 1999, mainly because of the Armstrong phenomenon.
"It's the bug. They get bit by the cycling bug," he says.
Carrying the torch
Yet even while Armstrong has dominated a sport like perhaps no other athlete, cycling still finds itself fighting for respectability in the United States. And several up-and-comers might have to collectively carry his torch now, since no one expects to see another Armstrong-type rider again.
"I think the biggest change over these last few years has just been having Lance in the program and him doing the things he's done," says Jim Ochowicz, the president of USA Cycling. "It's been huge for him and huge for a lot of other guys who find themselves having more and new opportunities now."
Take Armstrong out of the equation, and it's still been a pretty solid Tour for American riders.
David Zabriskie wore the leader's yellow jersey at the start, before dropping out because of an injury. Armstrong's longtime top lieutenant, George Hincapie, won a stage. Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis were among the top 10 at midweek and poised for strong finishes. Olympic bronze medalist Bobby Julich wasn't far from the leaders.
It's a much different scenario from the days when riders such as Armstrong and his predecessor as the American bike king, three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond, were considered the only true world-class U.S. cyclists.
"Before Lance, there'd typically be a few elite Americans. Now you see different Americans leading different teams, having significant roles on premier teams," says Kip Mikler, editor of the cycling magazine VeloNews. "We're not going to have another American seven-time winner, but they're pretty competitive."
Another major facet of the legacy Armstrong -- a cancer survivor -- leaves behind is his mark on culture, even away from the bike.
More than 50 million of those yellow "LiveStrong" wristbands have been sold, with the money raised going toward cancer research. Now, a new Armstrong-inspired clothing line -- "10//2" -- rapidly is gaining popularity, with some proceeds there benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
The line derives its name from the date Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer -- Oct. 2, 1996.
"In terms of persona, we'll most likely never see another Lance Armstrong," says USA Cycling spokesman Andy Lee. "Not only because of his dominating Tour de France wins over the years, but because of the incredible human interest component to his story."