Leader Armstrong saves best for last

First stage win of '05 Tour comes in final time trial as retirement draws near

July 24, 2005|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAINT-ETIENNE, France - The sky was deep blue, smiling on Lance Armstrong. His yellow jersey glistened with hope in sharp contrast to his pitch-black Trek bike, the instrument by which Armstrong was about to put his final emphatic mark on the 2005 Tour de France.

Riding in his last individual time trial at his last professional race, Armstrong, the 33-year-old cancer survivor and record-setting winner of six straight Tours, demolished the field yesterday.

Finishing in 1 hour, 11 minutes, 46 seconds at an average speed of 28.8 mph, Armstrong won the 34.5-mile race against the clock and all but clinched his seventh straight victory. He avoided becoming only the sixth man in Tour history, and the first since fellow American Greg LeMond in 1990, to win the overall title without winning an individual stage.

Armstrong has won 22 Tour stages and nine individual time trials in his career. "I don't think the sporting accomplishments are going to make my trip to heaven any easier," Armstrong said, "but it's nice to finish your career on a high note. To me there was no pressure for this victory. It was just something within myself, as a sportsman I wanted to go out on top."

The 2,254-mile, 21-stage trip around France ends today with a ride into Paris. For Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates, it will be an emotional celebration of his unprecedented accomplishments as well as a bit of melancholy farewell. It is with "no regrets," Armstrong said that he will end a 14-year professional career that has been as notable for his recovery from near-fatal cancer nine years ago as for his soon-to-be seven Tour titles

Armstrong increased his overall lead over second-place Italian Ivan Basso from 2:46 to 4:40. Germany's Jan Ullrich moved into third place, 6:21 behind.

Last year, when Armstrong became the first man to win six consecutive Tours, his children did not attend. Yesterday Armstrong fought back tears as he pointed to them, his mother, Linda, and his girlfriend, Sheryl Crow.

"My children are here, thank goodness," Armstrong said. "Come Monday morning we'll wake up in Paris. We'll fly to the south of France, lie on the beach, drink wine, not ride a bike, eat a lot of food, splash in the pool and not worry about a thing. This job is stressful, this race is stressful. Hopefully the next week will be a preview of what my life will be for the next 50 years."

Armstrong led the 20th stage at all but one of the five time checks, trailing Basso by seven seconds at the 17-kilometer mark. Basso had begun the day hoping to hold off five-time runner-up Ullrich and he did, though Ullrich finished second in the stage, 23 seconds behind Armstrong. Ullrich passed hard-luck Dane Mickael Rasmussen for third place overall.

Rasmussen started the day 2:12 ahead of Ullrich in third. But Rasmussen, who wore the polka dot jersey symbolic of earning the most points in the climbing competition, crashed twice, needed four new bikes and finished 77th on the day, 7:47 behind Armstrong and in seventh place overall. Another American, Levi Leipheimer, moved into fifth place.

John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and losing 2004 presidential candidate, rode in the Discovery Channel car with team director Johan Bruyneel. Kerry came, he said, because Armstrong and Crow had been in Boston the night Kerry lost the presidential election. "I am a huge fan," Kerry said of Armstrong. "I know the whole country is very proud of him."

Ullrich, who rides for T-Mobile, has finished second to Armstrong three times and a year ago finished off the podium for the first time in his career. The product of the former East German socialized sports system had been considered a serious challenger to Armstrong this year. But Ullrich had bad luck - slamming into a team car in a training ride one day before the Tour began and crashing in another stage - and he never seriously challenged Armstrong.

"I gave everything I had but it was not enough against Lance," said Ullrich, who won the 1997 Tour. "I'm just happy to be on the podium with Lance for the last time."

Basso had all but conceded the overall title earlier in the week after the final mountain stage in the Pyrenees. "He's a great champion," the 27-year-old leader of team CSC said. "Lance was too strong for me."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Results

20th stage

34.5-mile individual time trial beginning and ending in Saint-Etienne

1. Lance Armstrong, Discovery Channel, 1 hour, 11 minutes, 46 seconds. 2. Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile, :23 behind. 3. Alexandre Vinokourov, T-Mobile, 1:16. 4. Bobby Julich, CSC, 1:33. 5. Ivan Basso, CSC, 1:54.

6. Floyd Landis, Phonak, 2:02. 7. Cadel Evans, Davitamon-Lotto, 2:06. 8. George Hincapie, Discovery Channel, 2:25. 9. Francisco Mancebo, Illes Balears, 2:51. 10. Vladimir Karpets, Illes Balears, 3:05.

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