AUSTIN, Texas — Even by his lofty standards, Lance Armstrong's return to the mountaintop in 2004 was pretty special.
The question now facing Armstrong is whether he'll return to challenge the Pyrenees and the French Alps again in 2005.
Already recognized as one of the truly inspiring athletes of his generation, Armstrong took his cycling legacy a step further when he won a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France in July.
And for his accomplishment he was honored as The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for the third straight year.
Armstrong joined Michael Jordan (1991-93) as the only athletes selected by sports writers and broadcasters three straight times since the honor was first awarded in 1931.
"For me it was a special year," Armstrong said. "It's always nice to win the Tour, but this year was special simply because I broke the record and made history."
Armstrong received 51 first-place votes and 312 total points. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was second with 17 first-place votes and 156 points. Others with first-place votes included swimmer Michael Phelps, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and golfer Vijay Singh.
The voting reflected Armstrong's return to dominating form in an event where he separated himself so far from the pack there was little question of the outcome.
In 2003 Armstrong struggled to win his fifth Tour de France, capturing cycling's premier event and one of the world's most grueling sporting events by a mere 61 seconds.
It was also the year he got divorced, and he acknowledged that he struggled to balance the pressures of his personal and professional lives.
Yet the 33-year-old Texan stormed back in 2004 with arguably his best U.S. Postal Service team and his best individual performance on the bike. He won five individual stages and a sixth with a team time trial in France.
"I certainly feel like I recovered my true strengths. I haven't felt as in control of a Tour as this year," Armstrong said.
While other top riders and rivals such as Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich withered during the punishing race, Armstrong powered on.
Germany's Andreas Kloden, the Tour runner-up, got a close-up view of the American's strength in one of the hardest Alpine stages when Armstrong sailed past him to win a sprint finish in the last few meters.
"No gifts this year," Armstrong said after the stage.
But as dominant as Armstrong was in France, he has yet to commit to going for a seventh title next year. He promises to race again in the Tour de France before he retires, but won't say if it will be next year or 2006.
Armstrong says he's ready to pursue other challenges in racing.
He has dedicated most of his cycling life to the Tour, leaving little room for such Classic races as the Spanish Vuelta, the Paris-Roubaix or Fleche Wallone, which he won in 1996 shortly before being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
But he also knows that it's the Tour de France his American fans want to see him win.
"I could win the Tour of Flanders and I wouldn't win AP Athlete of the Year," he said.
Armstrong and his team — which has a new sponsor with the Discovery Channel — will release their schedule in January. Armstrong won't say if he'll race the Tour de France until May.
Whatever his choice, it will be all or nothing. It won't be a case of him riding to help someone else on his team win.
"If I'm going to ride, I'm riding to win. I'm not going to suffer for three weeks not to win," he said. "I've gotten too used to standing on the Champs Elysees at the end."
Armstrong had a big year off the bike as well. His personal life spilled over onto the celebrity pages when his relationship with rocker Sheryl Crow turned them into a star couple.
And his Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is dedicated to cancer survivorship programs, got a monumental boost with the popularity of its promotional "Livestrong" yellow wristbands.
Boosted by his most recent Tour victory, the foundation sold nearly 30 million of the wristbands this year, spawning a fashion trend that even made its mark on national politics. Democratic nominee John Kerry sported one on the campaign trail, and President George W. Bush has one too.
"I plan on wearing mine for a long, long time," Armstrong said, noting that he will always think of himself as a cancer survivor.
"We never set out to create a fashion statement, we simply set out to make a statement and symbol for cancer survivors."
Male Athlete of the Year
NEW YORK (AP) — Voting for the 2004 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, based on a 3-2-1 point system (first-place votes in parentheses):
Lance Armstrong (51); 312
Peyton Manning (17); 156
Michael Phelps (11); 124
Curt Schilling (17); 122
Vijay Singh (9); 90
Tom Brady (3); 31
Ichiro Suzuki (3); 29
Barry Bonds (1); 26
Roger Clemens (1); 22
Roger Federer (1); 14