Texan’s Tour lead grows
American Lance Armstrong put the champagne on ice Saturday after surviving the 2003 Tour de France’s penultimate stage, a slippery, 30-mile individual time trial from Pornic to Nantes, having all but clinched as record-tying fifth Tour de France victory.
The Texan all but sewed up his fifth consecutive overall title while his main rival, German Jan Ullrich, will have to settle for second place for a fifth time.
“This close one feels different and feels better than all the other ones,” Armstrong said after finishing third behind stage winner David Millar of Great Britain. “I definitely feel like I have missed or dodged a lot of bullets.”
Armstrong even widened his margin over Ullrich to a minute, 16 seconds in and only has to avoid disaster today during the final stage to Paris before becoming the fifth man to win the Tour five times.
The hardest Tour
Armstrong, cancer survivor, admitted this was the hardest Tour victory since his courageous cancer comeback in 1999. The 31-year-old Texan had to endure crashes, illnesses, near-misses, dehydration and determined rivals to join the elite five-win club.
“This was absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons. Physically I was not super, tactically we made some mistakes,” said Armstrong, who finished third behind stage winner David Millar, who rides for the French Cofidis team.
“This close one feels different and feels better than all the other ones,” added the Texan, who pumped his right fist as he crossed the line. “I definitely feel like I have missed or dodged a lot of bullets.”
Now he’s on verge of joining cycling’s elite five-win club after he relied on cagey tactics and sheer luck to make up for less than dominant strength.
“I think I had to rely more on strategy than I did on physical gift. Given that I was off a few points, I had to look at other ways,” said Armstrong, winner at stage 15. “I had a lot of luck. I’d always rather be lucky than good.”
First. Armstrong had to hold off Ullrich in Saturday’s rainy and windy time trial. The German took 1:36 out off the Texan in the Tour’s first time trial, but Armstrong was confident knowing all he had to do was keep Ullrich close.
“With more than 1 minute advantage, it’s not my position to take a risk. He’s the one that has to take a risks,” Armstrong said. “I can tell you I was much happier when I woke up this morning when I saw 19 degrees and rain than when I saw 40 degrees and sun (as with the first time trial). S When I heard that Jan crashed, for me the race was finished. I took it easy and really took no risks.”
Ullrich had his own problems. He couldn’t find his race glasses until the last moment and looked uncomfortable on the bike as he struggled to find a comfortable position.
He quickly opened up a six-second gap on Armstrong in the opening miles before the Texan matched his pace. Ullrich and Armstrong were roughly seven through the second time check when disaster struck.
Ullrich leaned heavily into a right turn, causing rear wheel to slightly slip and the burly German went sprawling to the ground, slipping all the way across the wet asphalt on his right side into the protective hay bails.
“I tried to win the day, but I fell down and everything is finished,” Ullrich said. “I knew the time trial would be difficult because of the weather, but I tried to win the stage today. Otherwise I am very happy. I just started the Tour to get to Paris; now I am second. I believe the next years will be mine.”
There was still reason to celebrate in the Bianchi camp. Ullrich had come back – from a drunk-driving arrest, two knee surgeries, a positive test for the party drug ecstasy and a racing ban – to come within 76 seconds of winning the Tour.
Ullrich came into the Tour with hopes of just finishing and instead won a stage and gave Armstrong the scare of his life. The Texan admitted as much.
“I said at the start he was the biggest challenger,” Armstrong said. “He gave us a lot of problems. We should have put more time into him at Alpe d’Huez and this race wouldn’t be so close. He’s back to his highest levels. For the first time that I’ve raced him, he kept us up at night longer than usual. “Nobody makes me more motivated than Jan Ullrich. He’s a big champion.”
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.