Armstrong beats Ullrich in time trial, locks up 5th straight Tour title |

Armstrong beats Ullrich in time trial, locks up 5th straight Tour title

Andrew Hood, Special to the Post Independent

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.

Barring a catastrophy in today’s final stage, Armstrong has clinched his fifth Tour de France victory.

Meanwhile, 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.

Armstrong even widened his margin over Ullrich to a minute, 16 seconds.

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.

“I definitely feel like I have missed or dodged a lot of bullets.” added the Texan, who pumped his right fist as he crossed the line.

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.

First. Armstrong had to hold off Ullrich in Saturday’s rainy and windy time trial.

The German took 1:36 out of 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 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). … 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 even through the second time check when disaster struck.

Ullrich leaned heavily into a right turn, causing his rear wheel to slip slightly 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.”

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