Roaring to a climax
Armstrong loses two seconds before key time trialPosted: Friday July 25, 2003 11:09 AM
Updated: Friday July 25, 2003 4:07 PM
SAINT-MAIXENT-L'ECOLE, France (AP) -- Two champions. Two bikes. Two thousand miles of mountains, scorching plains, crashes, drama and hard racing. And it all comes down to this: 30 miles of road.
By the end of that speedy stretch of tarmac, cooled by a moist Atlantic breeze, Lance Armstrong should know whether he's won his closest-ever Tour de France, joining a legendary handful of five-time winners, or finally succumbed to longtime German archrival, Jan Ullrich.
In an illustrious Tour career, it is Armstrong's most crucial rendezvous ever.
Armstrong will be the last rider to don his tear drop-shaped aerodynamic helmet, mount his high-tech aerodynamic bike and set off, legs whirring, heart pounding, trying to beat the tick-tick-ticking of the clock Saturday.
But among the 147 riders -- brave survivors from the 198 who set out three weeks ago from Paris -- who race before him, just one is in Armstrong sights: Ullrich.
Never has the 31-year-old Texan lost to the 29-year-old German -- or anyone else to that matter -- in the final time trial of cycling's most prestigious race since he stormed back from cancer to first win the Tour in 1999. He's determined that this year won't be the first.
"I'm relaxed. I remain confident because I've raced very well in the last time trial over the last four years," Armstrong said Friday.
In Armstrong's ideal world, it should not have come to this -- after 3,225.5 kilometers (1999.8 miles) with two days to Sunday's finish on a crowd-packed Champs-Elysees in Paris, he leads Ullrich by just 65 seconds, 31 seconds less than his rival took from him in their last time trial duel.
But this is “Le Tour,” perhaps sport's most grueling event, and this year it has preyed on the four-time champion like never before.
Usually meticulous in his preparation, Armstrong suffered stomach flu before the kickoff on July 5. He was battered in a crash on the second day, failed to shine in the Alps where he often dominates and, in a moment that seemed to encapsulate his woes, bounced across a field to avoid a key rival, Joseba Beloki, who crashed directly in front of him.
In perhaps his worst day, a dehydrated Armstrong lost 96 seconds to Ullrich in the last July 18 time trial. If Ullrich repeats that feat Saturday, he will almost definitely win the Tour. But Armstrong has surged back since then. The glint returned to his steely blue eyes after he recovered from a hard fall to win a mountain stage in the Pyrenees on Monday.
"He is confident," said his sporting director, Johan Bruyneel. "He's happy, his morale is good. I think he'll do a good time trial."
But Ullrich, the 1997 champion who has since finished runner-up twice to Armstrong, is fighting to the last.
He nipped two possibly crucial seconds out of Armstrong's overall lead in Friday's 18th stage, surprising his team by zooming ahead of the Texan in an intermediate sprint a quarter-way into the flat but super-fast 203.5-kilometer (126.2-mile) route from Bordeaux to this military town in west-central France.
Ullrich's second place in that sprint earned him four bonus seconds. Armstrong limited the damage by placing third, getting two seconds that preserved his overall lead at 65 seconds, down from 67.
With their race so tight, those seconds could count. At least, they offered a morale boost for Ullrich and showed that, unlike in previous years when he sometimes seemed to regard Armstrong as invincible, the German is determined to win.
"Two seconds is two seconds," said one of Ullrich's sporting directors, Alain Gallopin. On Saturday, he added, "Jan will give everything he has."
Armstrong, however, brushed off Ullrich's slight gain.
"It's not important losing two seconds. I don't think the Tour will be decided by two seconds," he said.
Their nail-biting rivalry is being compared to American Greg Lemond's eight-second win over France's Laurent Fignon in 1989, still the closest finish in the Tour's 100-year history.
"For this year's centenary, perhaps fate has a similar extraordinary scenario in store for us," said Bernard Hinault, a five-time Tour winner. "This Tour could be decided by hundredths of a second, the thickness of two tires."
Saturday's 49-kilometer (30.4-mile) course from the Atlantic port of Pornic to the western town of Nantes should suit both riders, who are proven time trialists.
"Flat, straight, not technical, should be a tail wind ... could be very fast, could be one of the fastest time trials in Tour history," said Armstrong.
Unlike for the last time trial, when Armstrong wilted in a heat wave that gripped the Tour, the forecast Saturday is for rain and a stiff sea-breeze.
Other riders said the weather, his mental strength, his 65-second lead and his determination to retain the overall leader's yellow jersey he so covets should give Armstrong the edge.
"My heart is for Ullrich, I'm a little patriotic, I'm German, but I think it will be Armstrong," said Udo Bolts of the Gerolsteiner team.
"It will be hard to take one minute in the time trial against Armstrong. But never say never ... In 1989, it was eight seconds at the finish, so anything can happen," said Dutch rider Servais Knaven, winner of Thursday's 17th stage.
Armstrong has made two changes to his high-tech carbon fiber and aluminum time trial bike, putting on a narrower front tire and handlebars to make it even more aerodynamic, said Scott Daubert of the Trek Bicycle Corp. that made it.
"It's a subtle change that may or may not make a difference," he said.
With the exception of their intermediate sprint, Armstrong and Ullrich conserved energy Friday for Saturday's duel, both finishing 24 minutes and 5 seconds behind stage winner, Pablo Lastras.
The Spaniard's average speed of 49.938 kilometers (30.962 miles) per hour made it the second-fastest road stage in Tour history. Lastras beat France's Carlos Da Cruz in the last few meters (yards) in a sprint. Italian Daniele Nardello was third. Ullrich placed 24th; Armstrong 45th.
"It was a very difficult stage, because it was very fast," said Lastras, of the Ibanesto.com team. "I wanted this victory for my mother, who died four months ago."