NANTES (France): Lance Armstrong all but locked up a record-tying fifth Tour de France title in a drama-packed time trial yesterday by finishing ahead of rival Jan Ullrich, who fell.
Barring a disaster, Armstrong will match Miguel Indurain's record of five successive victories in the last stage to Paris today.
Knowing that the Tour was his, Armstrong thrust a clenched right fist into the air as he powered to the finish of the rain-soaked time trial to Nantes, a broad smile on his face.
He finished third, one place and 11 seconds ahead of Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion whose rivalry with Armstrong had made this year's race one of the most gripping in years.
Only a fall or a similar such disaster that puts Armstrong out of the race today would open the door to Ullrich.
Ullrich's challenge effectively ended when he slipped negotiating a roundabout on the 49km course from the Atlantic coast port of Pornic to the western town of Nantes. He hit the deck heavily, sliding across the road. He got back on his bike but never got back his rhythm and concentration.
Ullrich had been 65 seconds behind at the start of the stage, forcing him to take risks and ride like the wind to try to make up the gap in the time trial.
By the end, Armstrong's overall lead had grown to 76 seconds overall. Never has Armstrong run such a close Tour since he won the first of his four titles in 1999. But, with the last stage mostly flat and not offering Ullrich a chance to make up the lost time, his lead will be enough to win today.
At the finish line, an elated Armstrong ascended a podium to accept the overall leader's yellow jersey. He was handed a large bouquet of yellow flowers, which he jubilantly tossed into the air.
He said he decided to race cautiously in order to protect his slight lead.
“The last 10 kilometers (miles) were really dangerous, it was very stormy and there was a lot of water on the road,” said Armstrong. “My plan today was to leave gently and get into a rhythm, I had a lead of more than minute. I didn't want to take any risks.”
The dramatic finale in the time trial was fitting for what has been a roller-coaster trek around France where it seemed at times that Armstrong's dream of matching Indurain's record would evaporate.
He suffered stomach flu before the kickoff on July 5; was bruised in a crash on the second day and failed to shine in the Alps where he usually dominates. He even had to divert into a field, bouncing across the sun-scorched grass, in one stage to avoid a crash in front of him by key rival Joseba Beloki, who was badly injured.
The turning point came last Monday when Armstrong recovered from a crash, caused by a spectator who caught his handlebars with an outstretched bag, and won a mountainous stage in the Pyrenees.
From that moment on, the glint returned to his steely blue eyes. – AP