Last standoff in Saint Etienne

By Shane Stokes

The race may be just two days from finishing but the stakes are nevertheless high for tomorrow's time trial in the Tour de France. Taking place on a tough 55 kilometre course in and around Saint Etienne, the big guns will be motivated to pull out their best possible performances.

Barring accident or serious mechanical problems, Lance Armstrong is too far ahead of his rivals to lose the Tour, but the proud Texan has yet to win a stage of the race. He's taken the final time trial five out of the past six years and will be aiming to do so again. Only five riders have won the Tour without winning a stage, namely Greg LeMond (1990), Lucien Aimar (1966), Gastone Nencini (1960), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Firmin Lambot (1922), and while the Discovery Channel rider has made a habit out of joining or surpassing others in the Tour record books, this is one statistic that he'd gladly turn down.

Most likely to get in Armstrong's way tomorrow is Jan Ullrich, who finished 1'01 back in last year's final time trial and just 0'25 down in 2000. The former world TT champion is looking stronger as the Tour goes on and while he's lost the war, winning this final battle against Armstrong will be a small but significant act of defiance.

Ullrich has the additional - and considerable - motivation of a podium place to aim for. Last year was the first time he ever finished outside the first three and he's no intention of doing that again. Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen is currently third overall but the King of the Mountains leader has no pedigree in races against the clock. He lost 5'15 to Ullrich last year over the same distance of 55 kilometres, and on the opening stage of this year's Tour conceded 2'06 in just 19 kilometres. Rasmussen has said that for the first time in his career he is psyched to ride well in a time trial, but transforming his physical capabilities by the amount needed to maintain his 2'12 lead is unlikely, to say the least.

Ivan Basso has a comfortable buffer of 3'12 over Ullrich and it would take a disaster for the CSC rider to lose his second place overall. He finished 1'49 behind the German twelve months ago but has improved against the clock since, as evidenced by his good performances against the clock in this year's Giro. As the maillot jaune said yesterday, the final podium does indeed look like being Armstrong, Basso and Ullrich in Paris.

Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Bobby Julich (Team CSC) were fourth and fifth in last year's time trial and will each aim for another strong showing. Julich's motivation is for a high stage result, while Landis is engaged in a three way scrap for 7th place. Cadel Evans (Davitamon.Lotto) currently occupies that slot but with Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) just 0'22 adrift and Landis 0'53 down, a shuffling of their placings is very possible. Further up the GC, Francisco Mancebo's fifth place is under serious threat by Levi Leipheimer, with just 1'04 separating the Illes Balears climber from the Gerolsteiner all-rounder.

Oscar Pereiro's fourth place on today's stage saw him overtake Christophe Moreau in the general classification. Although the Frenchman was tenth this morning, his Credit Agricole team didn't see fit to protect that placing, starting their chase way too late to make a difference. Moreau is now 0'36 adrift of the Phonak rider but will be encouraged by the fact that he was 16 seconds quicker over 19 kilometres on day one of this year's Tour. Pereiro was off the front for most of today's stage and that too will favour Moreau.

Of those further down in GC, riders such as George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole) and Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) will be aiming to crack the top ten. Brad McGee (Française Des Jeux) has the ability to also post a decent time, but this is totally dependant on how he has recovered from the injury and fatigue which hampered him over the past two weeks.

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