A Tour to the wire? | PostIndependent.com

A Tour to the wire?

Andrew Hood
Special to the Post Independent

BOURDEAUX, France – At the Tour de France Thursday, during the race’s relatively tranquil 17th stage, American Lance Armstrong and his German rival, Jan Ullrich, were sparring on the bike in a dramatic preview of what might happen if they reach Paris in a near-tie: With 700 yards to go in the flat – when the Tour’s overall challengers typically give way to the thoroughbred sprinters – the pair were sprinting off the front of the main group in a test of wills.

After all, 10 riders of little consequence to the overall classification had derailed the sprinters’ chances of snagging another stage win as they scampered off in a break just meters from the start of a pancake-flat ride from Dax to Bordeaux. The stage ultimately was won by Dutchman Servais Knaven of the Quick Step team, winner of the 2001 Paris-Roubaix, who put everything into a solo move with about 12 miles to go, scoring the first Dutch stage victory in this centennial Tour.

“This is my seventh Tour and I’ve always had second place, third place, so it’s nice to finally win a stage,” said Knaven, who came across the line 17 seconds ahead of runner-up Paolo Bossoni Vini Caldirola. “I don’t win a lot of races, so this means a lot to me.”

Unwritten code

Although it’s highly unlikely, there’s growing speculation the 2003 Tour could come down to a nail-biting finale Sunday if Armstrong and Ullrich are separated by just a few seconds going into the Tour’s final stage.

“We hope it doesn’t come down to that,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. “I believe Lance can win the time trial Saturday and it won’t be a concern.”

There’s an unwritten code that the Tour’s yellow jersey isn’t challenged in the final stage into Paris, normally a ceremonial, fun-filled romp until the final sprint on the Champs Elysees.

But this is no normal Tour, and Armstrong is in the fight of his cycling life. His average winning gap in four consecutive Tour victories is 6 minutes, 55 seconds, but with three days to go, the 31-year-old Texan leads Ullrich by just 1:07

Armstrong finished safely in the main bunch Thursday behind winner Knaven to nudge closer to Paris, but first he must hold off Ullrich in Saturday’s 30-mile race against the clock.

Following Friday’s flat rolling stage – when the main challengers will likely stick together – the Tour is expected to be decided in a heavyweight duel between Armstrong and Ullrich.

“Wednesday was the last chance to attack Armstrong in the mountains, but he was too strong to do anything,” Ullrich said before Thursday’s start. “The Tour will be decided Saturday in the time trial. I hope I can ride as strong as I did last week.”

Keeping Ullrich at bay

After safely negotiating the Tour’s final difficult mountain passes in Wednesday’s stage, Armstrong is equally confident he can keep the tenacious German at bay to win his record-tying fifth Tour.

“I’ve never lost a final Tour time trial, and I don’t plan on starting this year,” Armstrong said Wednesday. “Like I’ve always said, the Tour is never over until the final lap on the Champs Elysees.”

But what if Armstrong and Ullrich come out of Saturday’s time trial separated by 10 or 20 seconds?

The lure of the Tour victory might be too tempting to resist to yield to tradition.

Ullrich or Armstrong could fight for six-second time bonuses that are awarded at two “hot sprints” along Sunday’s 94-mile course or sprint for the 20-second time bonus awarded to the winner at the finish line. Or they could pull away from the other to make up the time differences.

Sprinters’ game

Even if it gets to that point, Armstrong and Ullrich would have to battle hot-legged sprinters who will be fighting for the prestigious final day victory in Paris.

“I can see it happening if it’s really close,” said Baden Cooke, an Australian racer on the Fdjeux.com team. “They’ll lead out the final kilometer of the sprint and it’ll just be the two of them because they’re both so strong. It would be spectacular.”

The scenario is unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the Tour.

In 1989, American Greg Lemond erased a 50-second deficit to beat Frenchman Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds in a rare final-day time trial in what’s the narrowest margin in Tour history. In 1980, Tour winner Bernard Hinault went on an angry solo attack and won the stage because critics said he didn’t race with enough “panache.”

In the even unlikelier scenario that the Tour is tied after the final stage, the winner would be decided by tenths, or even hundredths, of seconds.

That would be a tough way to lose the three-week, 2,000-mile bicycle race.

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