Armstrong moves closer to tour title

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 26, 2003

NANTES, France -- Lance Armstrong put himself in position for a record-tying fifth Tour de France title Saturday by finishing ahead of rival Jan Ullrich in a drama-packed time trial.

Ullrich fell on the rain-slicked course, got back up and finished 11 seconds behind the American.

The race's final stage Sunday in Paris is traditionally a ceremonial ride where no one challenges the overall leader. So barring disaster, Armstrong will match Miguel Indurain's record of five consecutive victories in cycling's most prestigious event.

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Armstrong smiled broadly and thrust a clenched right fist into the air as he powered to the finish of the 30.4-mile time trial.

He raced cautiously to protect his slight lead.

The last 6 miles ''were really dangerous -- it was very stormy, and there was a lot of water on the road,'' Armstrong said. ''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 31-year-old Texan finished third in the 19th stage, one spot in front of Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion whose rivalry with Armstrong made this year's race one of the most gripping in years.

But Ullrich now appears destined to be the runner-up in the overall standings for the fifth time. The German entered Saturday trailing Armstrong by 65 seconds.

That deficit forced Ullrich to take risks. And his challenge effectively ended when he slipped negotiating a turn during the course from the Atlantic coast port of Pornic to the western town of Nantes.

He hit the ground heavily, sliding across the road. Ullrich hopped on his bike but never really regained his rhythm and concentration.

By the end, Armstrong's overall lead had grown to 76 seconds -- by far the closest margin since he began his streak of Tour victories in 1999 after overcoming cancer.

At the finish line, Armstrong accepted a fresh yellow jersey worn by the overall leader. He was handed a large bouquet of yellow flowers, which he jubilantly tossed into the air.

David Millar of Britain won the stage in 54 minutes, 5 seconds. Tyler Hamilton, the American racing with a broken collarbone, was second in 54:14, followed Armstrong in 54:19.

It's the first time during his streak of Tour triumphs that Armstrong didn't win the closing time trial, an individual race against the clock.

Perhaps that's fitting, given all the problems Armstrong has faced during the past three weeks.

He had a stomach flu before the July 5 start. He was bruised in a crash on the second day, then failed to shine in the Alps, where he usually dominates. He even needed to ride into a field, bouncing across sun-scorched grass, to avoid a crash in front of him.

The turning point came Monday, when Armstrong fell off his bicycle when the handlebars were clipped by a spectator's bag. Armstrong wound up recovering to win that stage in the Pyrenees, and the glint returned to his steely blue eyes.

All of Armstrong's previous victories came with the comfort of final overall margins of at least 6 minutes.

But Ullrich never made things easy this time, beating Armstrong by more than 1 1/2 minutes in a time trial last week. The German hoped for a repeat performance Saturday, but he couldn't produce one.