Armstrong wins his first stage, builds lead to 4:40
SAINT-ETIENNE, France -- For one final time, Lance Armstrong fastened his feet on the pedals and faced the road ahead. He wasn't thinking about championships or his place in history, he said later, but about his three young children waiting at the finish.
This was the last time trial in his stellar career. He wanted them to remember it. He sprinted away, legs whirring, the Tour de France's yellow jersey on his back -- and a fresh one waiting at the finish.
There, 34.5 miles later, tears welled in Armstrong's steel blue eyes as he looked down from the winner's podium at 5-year-old Luke and twins Grace and Isabelle, age 3, and slipped into yellow again.
Once more, he had extended his overall race lead. Now all that remains is for him to ride gently into Paris on Sunday, pick up his seventh consecutive -- and last -- Tour title and retire. Thank you. Goodbye.
"To have three precious little people there hopefully remembering one last yellow jersey was a very strong incentive for me," Armstrong said. "I wanted to ride in today and ride into Paris in yellow for them, for the last image of their father as a sportsman to be that of a champion."
Armstrong beat Jan Ullrich, his long-suffering but most feared rival, by 23 seconds in the clock-race, crowning another dominant Tour by giving himself the individual stage win he had lacked this year until now.
Riding with an aerodynamic bike, helmet and suit to reduce wind drag and save seconds, Armstrong made easy work of the winding, hilly and crowd-lined route that looped north of Saint-Etienne in central France.
As race leader, Armstrong set out last of the 155 riders left after three weeks of racing across France and its mountains. On July 2, 189 riders had taken the start.
At the first time-check, Armstrong trailed Ivan Basso of Italy. But he led by the second and stayed ahead from that point.
Armstrong's time was 1 hour, 11 minutes and 46 seconds, for an average speed of 28.8 miles per hour. The stage win was the 22nd of Armstrong's career. Eleven of those were time trials. Armstrong also won three team trials with his support riders -- including this year's.
"It's nice to finish your career on a high note," he said. "As a sportsman, I wanted to go out on top."
He even overtook Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen, who had started out six minutes before him but had a disastrous ride on the tricky and technical route's sharp bends, fast downhills and tiring uphills.
"Quite honestly, I wasn't absolutely sure I could do it," Armstrong said. "I thought Jan would be strong, and then when I got to the first check I saw that Ivan was seven seconds up and I thought, 'Oh boy, this could be an interesting day.'
"I ended up turning things around and winning," he said. "So, pleasant surprise."
On Sunday, barring a freak crash on what is traditionally a victory ride into Paris with a sprint finish at the end, Armstrong will collect his 83rd and last yellow jersey. Only Belgian Eddy Merckx -- with 111 -- won more.
Armstrong said he was retiring with "no regrets." Winning the Tour has brought him huge fame and fortune.
"There's no reason to continue. I don't need more," he said. "My time is up, I don't crave attention."
After Paris, Armstrong plans a holiday in the south of France with family, friends and rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow.
"Lay on the beach and drink wine, and not ride a bike, and eat a lot of food," he said. "It will be hopefully a week's preview of what my life might be like for the next 50 years -- no stress."
Armstrong hammered his rivals from the opening day of this Tour, finishing second in the first time trial well ahead of Ullrich and other top challengers. He built on his lead in the first day in the Alps and comfortably controlled the race from that point -- silencing doubters who questioned whether he still had the will and the legs to win.
"You know how many attacks it takes to win the Tour de France? One. One attack and two good time trials. Tour finished," Armstrong said on Saturday. "So we stuck with that ... it worked."
While he's retiring, Armstrong said he might occasionally take part in cyclo-cross, mountain bike and triathlons race to satisfy his competitive streak.
"It's not as if I'm going to sit around and be a fat slob," he said.
Ullrich's ride moved him up from fourth to third in the overall standings, displacing Rasmussen, who crashed twice and had repeated mechanical problems, changing bikes several times.
"I gave everything I had but it was not enough against Lance," said Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion whose hopes of winning another have repeatedly been dashed by Armstrong.
"But I'm happy to be on the podium and to finish this Tour in good health despite the two crashes I had," he said.
Basso placed fifth in the time trial, 1:54 behind Armstrong but good enough to keep second place on the podium in Paris -- improving on last year's third place.
Armstrong tipped Basso as his possible successor, saying: "Ivan proved that he is a great climber and perhaps the future of this race."
But he also said Ullrich could win again if he prepares better. Armstrong called him "the scariest rider in the group."
Overall, Armstrong's lead on Basso grew to 4:40. Ullrich is 6:21 behind.
Armstrong says he wants to stay out of the public eye for the next few years.
"I need a period of quiet and peace and privacy," he said.
But he knows where he'll be next July.
"I will be parked in front of the TV watching the Tour," he said. "The 2006 Tour de France is going to be very interesting ... It will be a very different race."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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