Armstrong, Ullrich go head-to-head today
Outcome could be a matter of seconds -- or less
SAINT-MAIXENT-L'ECOLE, France -- Two champions, two bikes, 2,000 miles of mountains, plains, crashes and hard racing. And it all comes down to this: 30 miles in a race against the clock.
By the end of that speedy stretch today, Lance Armstrong should know whether he's beaten rival Jan Ullrich for a record-tying fifth straight Tour de France victory -- and his closest yet.
"I'm relaxed," the 31-year-old Texan said Friday. "I remain confident, because I've raced very well in the last time trial over the last four years."
Indeed. He's never lost in the final time trial of cycling's most prestigious race since overcoming cancer to first win the Tour in 1999. Armstrong heads into the 19th of this year's 20 stages with a 65-second lead over Ullrich, the 1997 champion and a runner-up four times.
Ullrich earned a 4-second bonus by finishing second in an intermediate sprint in Friday's 126.2-mile stage from Bordeaux to this town in west-central France. Armstrong was third in the sprint, picking up 2 bonus seconds.
With the overall standings so tight, the 2 seconds Ullrich gained could be crucial. At the least, they could give him a morale boost ahead of the time trial.
Armstrong, of course, didn't think so.
"It's not important losing 2 seconds. I don't think the Tour will be decided by 2 seconds," Armstrong said.
He will be the last rider to don his teardrop helmet and mount a high-tech bike for today's 30.4-mile course from the Atlantic port of Pornic to the western town of Nantes.
It should not have come to this, as far as Armstrong is concerned. His minute-plus lead could be in danger today; after all, Ullrich beat the American by more than 11⁄2; minutes in a time trial last week.
The grueling test of endurance and will that is the Tour de France has challenged Armstrong much more this year than in his run of titles.
Usually meticulous in his preparation, he had a stomach flu before the start 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 as a key rival, Joseba Beloki, crashed directly in front of him.
In perhaps his worst day, a dehydrated Armstrong lost 96 seconds to Ullrich in the July 18 time trial. If Ullrich repeats that feat today, 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.