Signed, sealed and...

The Armstrong fairytale all but complete

It wouldn't have been right if it didn't happen. Today in St. Etienne, he made it happen.

Under cool, hazy skies, Lance Armstrong fulfilled the void of what many thought would be a Tour victory without an individual stage win, asserting his dominance one final time in a tough, technical race against the clock. Averaging 46.4 clicks an hour, the six-time, soon to be seven-time champ pedaled his usual, high-rev cadence throughout the entire 55 kilometre parcours and never - not even for a second - looked like losing, finishing 23 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich and 1'16 in front of Alexandre Vinokourov.

"I was ambivalent [about getting the win]," said a surprisingly mellow Lance Armstrong after the stage. "I wanted to go as hard as I could, as I always like to do, I wanted to represent the yellow jersey and prove that I was the strongest in the race. But quite honestly I wasn't absolutely sure I could do it. I thought Jan would be strong, and then when I got to the first check I saw that Ivan was seven seconds up. I thought, 'Oh boy, this could be an interesting day.'

"It's nice to finish my career on a high note, not just for the stage, but for the overall," added a composed Armstrong at the post-race press conference. "For me, there was no pressure for this victory, it's just something I had within myself as a sportsman, I wanted to go out on top. That was the only incentive and that was the only pressure."

Once again, the audience was left wondering what might have been if Ullrich was as good as he was today in the first two weeks, which is where the German has lost the race to the Texan time and time again. Regardless, Der Jan's ride today deserved a high distinction, and the 31 year-old can take comfort in his seventh podium finish at La Grand Boucle.

"I gave it all from the very first metre," said a totally spent Ullrich moments after he crossed the finish line, engulfed in a mad, mad media frenzy. "I'm very happy about the podium, but what makes me happiest is that I rode through the Tour healthy; I suffered two really bad crashes and the plain fact that I'm still here and still strong is the best. I have to thank a lot of people on my team for that. But right now, I'm just knackered."

Added Armstrong: "Jan's special. He's a special guy; to me, he's still the scariest guy. He needs to come to the Tour not in a lot better shape, but a little better shape. He has the package, but it's just the first 10 days; if he changes that, he wins."

The man who Ullrich knocked off to get his podium spot, Michael Rasmussen, experienced one of the biggest blow-outs in history, crashing twice and requiring three bike changes. It was a shocking, regrettable day for poor Chicken, and falling from a potential podium in Paris to seventh on GC in one afternoon will be hard to forget. On the other hand, Ivan Basso, the fastest at the first check-point, faltered towards the end to finish fifth, but did more than enough to secure his second place overall.

Kazakhstan champ Vinokourov, whose whereabouts for the 2006 season are still unknown, most likely prompted a few more offers on the boardroom table after today's superlative performance. "What a special day," said Vino. "I have a lot of memories in St. Etienne, and I really wanted to give the maximum. Thanks to all the spectators who came to cheer me on, it was magnificent."

Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer didn't have a great day out on his TT bike, finishing 3'13 off the pace for 14th, but as a consequence of Rasmussen's disaster, the 31 year-old still moved up one place on the overall to fifth, his likely resting place in Paree. "I suffered. I didn't have any information, so I didn't know how I was doing - all I knew was what I saw on the clock. It went good on the hill, but I lost too much in the beginning," he said.

"But it's always nice to get it over with," added Leipheimer. "You're always looking forward for the Tour to end, but then, when it ends, there's always a little bit of sadness as well...but it's been a great Tour, so I'm happy."

In contrast to the American, Davitamon-Lotto rider Cadel Evans, seventh at the start of the day, also finished seventh in the stage, but Vinokourov's A+ performance saw him swap his overall position with the Kazakhstani. "This was pretty much the best I could do today; I'm happy with the result," Evans said.

"The start went fast, I didn't feel great. I had a bad section with 20, 25 k's to go, but came good in the end. But all in all, for a third week, it was a good time trial. As soon as I get to through the corners of the Champs Elysées tomorrow, I'm going to be very happy!"

The battle for the maillot vert appears pretty much decided in favour of Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), who holds a 15-point buffer over Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) and a margin of 19 on Robbie McEwen (Davitamon), clearly the best sprinter of the 2005 Tour de France. However, with no sprint in sight till 15:30, when the riders are expected to hit Chatenay-Malabry at km 75, before the final hoo-hah on the Champs-Elysées, the final verdict won't be known till much later tomorrow afternoon.

All things being equal, if O'Grady won the stage, Hushovd would need to finish seventh or worse for Stuey to win overall; and if Rockin' Robbie were to take his third win on the Champs and his third green tunic, Mighty Thor would need to be not so mighty at all, finishing outside the top 10. Both appear unlikely scenarios, but 27 year-old Hushovd's keeping his wits about him: "Like Baden Cooke told me the other day, you have to be concentrated every day and not lose the focus, otherwise something can happen like what happened to Rasmussen today," he said.

About Armstrong's impending retirement, now less than 24 hours away, the 33 year-old said he's more convinced about his decision now than he's ever been.

"I've had an unbelievable career. I've been blessed to ride 14 years as a professional; I've been blessed to win some big bike races before my illness and to win the Tour seven times after my illness; I've been blessed with financial reward that I never thought was possible - it makes my life and my children's life very comfortable now... there's no reason to continue. It's time for a new face, it's time for a new story - no regrets.

"The thing is, this job is stressful, this event is stressful; hopefully, [the holiday] would be a taste of what's to come in the next 50 years."

How it unfolded

Stage 20 was a difficult, rolling technical course that ran northeast from the grimy industrial burg of Saint Etienne in to the hills surrounding the city, then ran back down to finish at the local fairgrounds. There were intermediate time checks at km 17, km 35, and km 49.7, but the most crucial came atop the Cat. 3 Col de la Gachet (5.7 km climb at 4.5%) after 40.2km.

Kjell Carlström (Liquigas-Bianchi) came through in 1h19'12, then Van Summeren (Davitamon-Lotto), Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), and big Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) in 1h15'49 bested the Finn's time. Cancellara will go to CSC next season, where he'll meet Luke Roberts, who had an excellent time to move ahead of the Swiss champion by 0'16 with a 1h15'33. Roberts held on until Gerolsteiner's TT specialist Seb Lang posted 1h15'12, 21 seconds faster than the young Aussie. Although he's done little at this year's Tour, last year's maillot blanc of Best Young Rider Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears) hammered home in 1h14'51, the first rider under 1h15'00. Out on the course, two CSC riders were smokin', trying to give their team leader Basso the best splits; Julich had the new best time at 17 km, with 26'21, with Carlos Sastre second in 26'43.

The final 20 riders started at three minute intervals, and now the big guns had started to fire with the last 10 riders on the course, starting with Phonak's Floyd Landis in 9th place, who was second to Julich at the first time check after 17km. Third placed rider Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) was on the course in his maillot pois skinsuit and it was about to be the worst day of his life. His front wheel slipped out on a roundabout early on in today's stage and he crashed hard on his right side. He got back up quickly, but couldn't afford to lose any more time on the hard charging Ullrich, who had already pulled back a minute on the Rabobank climber at the first time check. Ivan Basso had started his ride, 3'00 behind the Dane, while Armstrong had left the start house too and was flying over the first kilometres of the course.

Vinokourov had passed through the first time check with the fastest time yet, as his T-Mobile teammate Ullrich continued to pull back time on the hapless Rasmussen, who had now punctured his rear disc and had a bad wheel change that cost him more time, requiring three bike changes to get it right. Back at the finish in Saint Etienne, Bobby Julich set the new fast time of 1h13'19, 1'32 under Karpets' time. His teammate Basso blasted through the first time check 17 seconds faster than Ullrich, and even 7 seconds faster than Armstrong, but the Italian might have gone out too fast for his own good.

Atop the Cat. 3 Col de la Gachet (a 5.7 km climb at 4.5%) after 40.2km, Vino had the fastest time of 57'33 and was poised to move up on GC with his good ride, while Rasmussen's horrible day continued as he crashed on the descent back to Saint Etienne and went head over heels into a ditch. Landis finished with a good ride, but was only second, 0'29 behind Julich, while out on the road, Armstrong caught Rasmussen for 6 minutes.

Vinokourov powered across the line in 1h13'02 for the new fastest time, while Basso's fast start had caught up with him as he rode 40km checkpoint 0'46 slower than Ullrich. Just behind Basso atop the Col de la Gachet climb, Armstrong flew through 0'32 faster than Ullrich and was taking time in chunks from 2nd placed Basso. Der Jan Ullrich then set the new best time of 1h12'09, almost a minute ahead of his teammate Vinokourov, and then Basso finished with 1h13'40, 1'31 behind Ullrich. But the inevitable happened and once again, maillot jaune Lance Armstrong came home the winner in a Tour De France time trial for the 9th time in his career. It was his first win of 2005 and he finished in 1h11'46, 0'23 up on Ullrich for an average speed of 46.4 km/h, impressive on such a hilly course. Behind Armstrong, it was Rasmussen who rode in last, finishing 77th in the time test, 7'47 behind Armstrong and losing four positions on GC to end up 7th overall.

Big winners on the day were Mancebo, who suffered to 9th and made it up to fourth on GC; Levi Leipheimer, who hung tough despite a less than brilliant ride today and maintained his 5th place on GC; Vinokourov, who had a storming ride to finish third and move up two places; Evans, who had a excellent ride today in the TT and a superb rookie Tour and moved down one spot on GC to 8th; and Landis, who hung on to 9th place. A gap of 1'19 covered places fifth through eighth, while Pereiro stayed in 10th on GC, his same place as in 2004.

Stage 21 - Sunday, July 24: Corbeil Essones-Paris Champs-Elysees, 144km

The final stage of the 92nd Tour de France is also the final stage of the career of Lance Armstrong, who will hear the Star Spangled Banner for the seventh year in the row atop the Tour de France podium. But first, Armstrong must first cross the Cat 4 climb of Cote de Gif-sur Yvette after 57km, then the sprint at Chatenay-Malabry after 57km, then the traditional criterium of 8 6.5km laps on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, before the final sprint and final moment of Lance Armstrong's professional cycling career.

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