CARMAUX, France - On the parched roads of southern France, Lance Armstrong was as thirsty as he has ever been. Jan Ullrich, apparently, hasn't been this hungry in a long time.
Ullrich torched the field in the Tour de France's first long individual time trial yesterday, winning the 29.2-mile stage by 1 minute, 36 seconds over Armstrong and setting up the tightest and potentially most interesting tour finish since the Texan's reign began.
Armstrong's overall lead actually grew from 21 to 34 seconds as Ullrich, more than two minutes behind going into yesterday's race, had to vault several riders to get into second place.
But no one poses more of a threat to the four-time defending champion than the generally impassive German, who flashed a rare, boyish smile as he savored his first stage victory since 1998.
"I never imagined a result like this," said Ullrich, 29, the 1997 champion who has finished second the other four times he has started the race. "I'm speechless."
The two longtime rivals will go for the jugular in the Pyrenees over the next three days. Neither appeared invulnerable in the Alps, where Armstrong said he wasn't in top form and Ullrich was weakened by a slight fever he thought might have been food poisoning.
Unless one or the other has a significant meltdown, the race could come down to a time trial on the Atlantic coast on July 26, the second-to-last day of the three-week race.
Armstrong said he would be confident if that scenario materializes, although it would be the most pressure-filled of his athletic life.
"Jan had a super day, but if you look besides today, very rarely has he beaten me in the time trials," Armstrong said. "If we started with 34 seconds, I wouldn't lose sleep.
"As I said before the tour, I considered him the biggest rival and obviously now I still do. Jan's a time trial specialist and it shouldn't surprise anyone that he won."
Ullrich powered through the course, looking smooth and as comfortable as was possible in the 100-degree heat, and he was the only rider to complete the trial in less than an hour. In contrast, Armstrong ran out of water and gas between the first six miles, in which he matched Ullrich's time, and the climb at the end of the stage.
"I suffered," Armstrong said.
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