Armstrong set to wrap it up today in Paris

After career-high 5th stage win, record 6th Tour title all but given

July 25, 2004|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BESANCON, France - Lance Armstrong added an exclamation point to what will almost certainly be his history-making sixth Tour de France victory with a triumph yesterday in the race's second individual time trial.

The Stage 19 win was Armstrong's career-high fifth in the 2004 race and marked the first time he has swept both time trials since 2001. The next-best rider was Germany's Jan Ullrich, who was 61 seconds slower.

As has been the case for five straight years, all Armstrong needs to do is stay in the saddle today during the flat and largely ceremonial final run into Paris to do what no rider has done before in the 101-year history of the race.

But he played it low-key yesterday as he cruised over the finish line in this city in east central France, bending over the handlebars with one final effort and making no special gesture to mark the occasion. The crowd at the line applauded warmly.

"If I make it tomorrow, if I climb the top step, it will be the moment I care for forever," said Armstrong, whose current margin of 6 minutes, 38 seconds over Germany's Andreas Kloden probably won't change today.

The gap is only his third biggest after Stage 19, but it is something of an illusion because Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team have basically controlled this Tour from the beginning.

Nor did Armstrong comment about returning in 2005 to try to extend his streak.

"I'm just trying to finish this Tour de France and finish it safely," Armstrong said when pressed about his plans for next season.

He said he would discuss next year with team director Johan Bruyneel and the team's new title sponsor, Discovery Communications, at some point in the next two months.

"But make no mistake about it: This is the greatest bike race in the world," Armstrong said. "It's the one that matters the most, and it's the one that I love the most. I can't imagine skipping the Tour."

Drenching rain fell yesterday morning, but the sky had cleared by mid-afternoon and conditions were nearly perfect for the last and best group of riders off the start ramp.

Five U.S. competitors finished in the top 12. Postal's Floyd Landis had a strong ride and came in fourth, 2:25 behind Armstrong. Bobby Julich of Team CSC neared the end of his comeback Tour on a high note, placing fifth.

Julich, who crashed in the Pyrenees and severely sprained his wrist, now will set his sights on next month's Olympics.

"Every day has been a battle to finish the race," Julich, who is 40th overall, told a French television reporter. "But working for Ivan [Basso] gave me the morale to finish. Unfortunately, we had a lot of bad luck. I hope we'll be able to drink a bottle of champagne for Ivan in Paris."

Rabobank team leader Levi Leipheimer likely will just miss equaling his best Tour finish, eighth in 2002. Leipheimer placed 12th in the time trial and should wind up ninth overall, 20:31 behind Armstrong.

"I would say I'm content," Leipheimer said. "It's nice to confirm what I did in my first Tour."

Leipheimer had two bad days that cost him a better finish: a subpar climb of Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees after his blood sugar plunged, and a disappointing time trial on l'Alpe d'Heuz.

"It's a day I just have to write off," said Leipheimer, who is rumored to be headed back to Postal (Discovery) next season. "I mean, I was really disappointed. It was the day I was looking forward to most in the Tour, and maybe that's why I didn't do so well. I was mentally blocked."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Overall standings(Through Stage 19)

1. Lance Armstrong, United States, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, 79 hours, 27 minutes, 17 seconds.

2. Andreas Kloden, Germany, T-Mobile Team, 6 minutes, 38 seconds behind.

3. Ivan Basso, Italy, Team CSC, 6:59.

4. Jan Ullrich, Germany, T-Mobile Team, 9:09.

5. Jose Azevedo, Portugal, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, 14:30.

What's left

Stage Miles Description

20 101.3 Mostly flat

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