Star American cyclist Lance Armstrong has virtually wrapped up a record-tying fifth Tour de France title after a drama-filled 49-kilometer individual time trial Saturday that ended in Nantes.
This was the first time since 1999 that Armstrong has not won the closing time trial, but he finished ahead of his closest rival, German Jan Ullrich, and that was the key.
The weather could not have been much worse. Wind and rain made for treacherous conditions as riders raced against the clock in staggered starts.
Needing to make up 65 seconds on Armstrong, Ullrich went all-out, and he fell while rounding a curb on the wet pavement.
While he did not lose a lot of time, it was enough to give Armstrong a cushion he would not give up. Armstrong was third and Ullrich fourth, 11 seconds behind the defending champion.
David Millar of Britain won the time trial in 54:05, and American Tyler Hamilton was second.
With that 65-second lead over Ullrich heading into the time trial, Armstrong knew he just needed to keep pace.
"There were times with the wind, with the painted roads, the crosswalks, the white paint, definitely both wheels sliding at times," he said. "[(There were] just always reminders that, hey, the difference between staying up and going down sometimes is a very fine line. And I tried to balance it. When I heard that Jan crashed, for me the race was finished. I mean I just took it easy and then really took no risks."
With the Tour's final stage Sunday ending in Paris, Armstrong holds a 76-second lead over Ullrich, so barring a disaster, the American will earn his fifth straight title in cycling's premier event. He told reporters this has been his most difficult Tour de France.
"I feel like I was not necessarily on top of my game," he said. "But I was able to survive in the bad moments, limit my losses in the first time trial and limit my losses in the days after that, avoid some crashes and not be too affected with the ones that I was in. But at the end of the day, sometimes you have to survive in order to win, and I was able to do that."
A victory by Lance Armstrong Sunday will tie the record of five straight Tour de France wins achieved by Miguel Indurain of Spain in the 1990s.