Armstrong close to clinching Tour

Sunday, July 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:24 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

BESANCON, France — Lance Armstrong capped his most dominant Tour de France with a victory in the final time trial Saturday, all but guaranteeing a place in history as the first six-time winner of the 101-year-old race.

Pedaling furiously for a victory he didn’t even need to secure his sixth crown, Armstrong again overpowered his rivals, building a gaping lead that he carried past cheering crowds to the finish in Besancon.

Armstrong, riding a high-tech aerodynamic bike and wearing his bright yellow leader’s jersey, was 1 minute, 1 second faster than second-place Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion and five-time runner-up.

Only a crash or other disaster on today’s last ride into Paris can stop him from becoming, in titles at least, the greatest of the Tour’s 53 winners.

“To be on the verge of breaking history is incredibly special,” he said. “If I make it, in yellow, climbing the top step tomorrow and making history will be the moment that I carry forward forever.”

As overall leader, Armstrong set out last on the rolling 34.1-mile time trial course that looped south of Besancon, the birthplace of literary giant Victor Hugo. At the first time check 11 miles in, Armstrong was 43 seconds quicker than Ullrich.

At the finish, he almost caught Ivan Basso, even though Basso started 3 minutes ahead of him.

The stage win was Armstrong’s fifth this race, bettering his previous best of four in a Tour since he began his reign in 1999 after having conquered cancer.

“When I won the first one, I thought I could die and go away a happy man,” he said. “To win six is very hard to put into words. I’m happy because it’s over. I’m tired, in the head, in the legs. Everywhere.”

Andreas Kloden, Ullrich’s teammate, was third in Saturday’s race against the clock, 1:27 behind Armstrong, but fast enough to overtake Basso for second in the overall standings. Kloden, who did not finish last year, was delighted.

“It’s a dream come true. … The highlight of my career,” he said.

Basso, the best young rider of 2002 and seventh last year, should finish third in Paris. Ullrich is destined for fourth, his first time off the podium.

“Lance is riding in a different league,” Ullrich said. “I have enormous respect for the way he rides. He deserved to win.”

Not only did Armstrong overpower his adversaries from Day 1, but they also never rose to the challenge of trying to dethrone him. Aside from Ullrich, Spanish climbers Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo flopped in the mountains and abandoned the race, and American Tyler Hamilton went home injured.

“We’d hoped for better, obviously,” Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said. “Is it because of his strength and the strength of his team? Yes. It is also doubtless due to a relative weakness of the opposition.”

Armstrong remained modest, saying: “I wouldn’t be so bold as to call it a domination.”

His lead of 6:38 over Kloden is not his biggest margin of victory, which remains 7:37 ahead of Alex Zulle of Switzerland in 1999. It was far better than last year, when he beat Ullrich by 1:01.

“I’m enjoying the competition more than ever, not to make history, not to make money, not for these things, but just for the thrill of getting on a bike and racing 200 other guys,” he said.

Basso is 6:59 behind and Ullrich 9:09 back. With Kloden, they are the only riders within 10 minutes of Armstrong.

In the Alps, he won three stages in a row for the first time.

He also won the second and hardest of two days in the Pyrenees, after allowing Basso to take the first stage a day earlier. He was spectacular in the debut time trial, dealing a psychological blow to adversaries from the get-go by placing second. He also won the team time trial with his U.S. Postal Service squad. Including that collective victory, Armstrong won more than one quarter of this year’s 21 stages.

Armstrong said he hasn’t decided whether to return in 2005 or miss a year.

“I can’t imagine skipping the Tour, and if I do come, I would only come with the perfect condition,” he said. “I would never come for a promenade. For me, it’s a special, special event and I can’t imagine not being here.”

He also said he can no longer bear being separated for so long from his three children, who live with his former wife, Kristin, in Texas.

His latest crown will climax six years of helping transform cycling’s showcase race, bringing American brashness, determination and know-how to an event that is almost as much a part of French lore as wine, the Eiffel Tower or the baguette.

His focus, attention to detail, use of go-fast technologies to save seconds and his ability to recruit, keep and motivate teammates devoted to his cause, have raised the bar for how to win the three-week cycling marathon.

“It’s an improvement in the method of approaching the Tour de France, more professional, more rigorous, more methodical,” Leblanc said. “In a word, more American.”

Even with six crowns, debate will rage on whether Armstrong is a cut above the four five-time champions he will eclipse.

Belgian Eddy Merckx, for example, holds the Tour record of stage wins, 34, compared with 21 for Armstrong.

Merckx and Frenchman Bernard Hinault collected more yellow jerseys as race leader. Merckx won 96, Hinault 78. Armstrong will earn his 66th jersey today.

Armstrong’s fans are inspired by his defeat of testicular cancer, diagnosed in 1996, and his emphatic wins. Detractors claim that his almost military approach has drained the Tour of romance and suspense. Some suspect his domination must be because of drugs, shouting “Doped!” as he passes.

Armstrong insists he has never taken performance-enhancers and said “people that stand there and boo” amuse him.

He said hard work is the secret of his success.

“When it’s pouring rain and you have to go out and ride six hours in the mountains, there’s no fun doing that,” he said. “But that’s what makes the difference.”

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