Race leader Armstrong finishes in pack

Originally Published: July 24, 2004
Associated Press

BESANCON, France -- Lance Armstrong capped his most dominant Tour de France with another impressive win in the final time trial Saturday, guaranteeing that he will ride into history as the first six-time champion in the race's 101-year history.

Pedaling furiously toward a stage victory that he didn't even need, Armstrong overpowered his rivals yet again, quickly building a gaping lead that he carried past cheering crowds to the finish line of the individual race against the clock.

Riding a high-tech aerodynamic bike and wearing the bright yellow leader's jersey, the Texan finished 61 seconds faster than Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion and a five-time overall runner-up.

The stage win was Armstrong's fifth of this Tour, his most since 1999, when he he conquered cancer and first won cycling's most prestigious event.

Only a crippling crash or other catastrophe will prevent Sunday's closing ride into Paris from being a lap of honor for Armstrong.

"To be on the verge of breaking history is incredibly special," he said.

Still, he remained cautious.

"I'm always careful to say that we have another day to go, and if you crash on the Champs Elysee and don't finish tomorrow, then you don't win. So I have to be careful and hope it works out," Armstrong said.

"What does it mean to me [to] win six Tours? It's very difficult to say. You'll have to ask me in a couple weeks, I think. When I won the first one, I thought I could die and go away a happy man. To win six is very hard to put into words."

Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's teammate, was third Saturday and rode so fast that he surpassed Ivan Basso for second in the overall standings.

Basso is third, with Ullrich a career-worst fourth.

Yet Armstrong remained modest.

"I wouldn't be so bold as to call it a domination," he said.

Basso, the only rider other than Armstrong to win a stage in the Pyrenees this year, is 6:59 behind. Ullrich is 9:09 back.

Armstrong's overall lead of 6:38 over Kloden is one of his biggest. Last year, he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds and swore that he would improve on that in 2004.

"Overall, it was smooth race," he said. "Some of that has to do with training. Some of that has to do with luck. This year, certainly compared to last year, was black and white."

He has proved insatiable. His latest Tour title will cap six years in which Armstrong helped transform the event, bringing American brashness, determination and know-how to a race that is almost as much a part of French lore as wine, the baguette and the Eiffel Tower.

Saturday's 34.1-mile time trial route carved an elongated loop south of Besancon, the birthplace of literary giant Victor Hugo, through villages, up and down hills and on roads lined with crowds.

"I'm happy because it's over," he said in French. "I'm tired, in the head, in the legs. Everywhere."

The top 20 riders started three minutes apart, starting in the inverse order of their place in the overall standings. That meant Armstrong set out last -- a big advantage because it allowed him to know how rivals were faring up ahead.

He started the day with a lead of 4:09 over Basso and didn't need to go flat-out. But he couldn't resist the chance for another win. Armstrong said his crown was not just a solo effort, thanking the team that was the muscle behind his campaign.

"It's a group effort," he said. "It's not just me."

Armstrong wouldn't say for sure if he would be back next year, but said it would be hard to turn his back on his favorite race.

"I can't imagine skipping the Tour, and if I do come, I would only come with the perfect condition," he said. "For me it's a special, special event and I can't imagine not being here."

But even with six crowns, the debate will continue as to whether Armstrong is a cut above the four five-time champions he will eclipse Sunday.

Eddy Merckx of Belgium, for example, holds the record of 34 Tour stage wins, 13 more than Armstrong.

And Merckx, nicknamed "The Cannibal" because of how he devoured rivals on the road, and five-time champion Bernard Hinault of France both collected more yellow jerseys that are awarded each day to the race's overall leader.

Armstrong will earn his 66th yellow jersey on Sunday and, on this Tour, overtook five-time champion Miguel Indurain of Spain, who won 60, for third place in the standings. Merckx won 96, Hinault 78.

Armstrong's single-minded focus on the Tour, his attention to detail, his use of new technologies to save seconds and his ability to recruit, keep and motivate teammates 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," race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said. "In a word, more American."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press