Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Armstrong on the brink of sixth win

TOUR DE FRANCE Only some unforeseen distaster can prevent American Lance Armstrong from becoming the greatest racer during the Tour's long and glorious history

AP , PARISAP, BESANCON, FRANCE

US Postal team rider Lance Armstrong during the 19th stage of the Tour de France in Besancon, France, Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

Lance Armstrong has just one more line to cross Sunday before seizing his place in sporting history as the first six-time winner of the celebrated Tour de France, an agonizing 23-day race that rewards the fastest overall cyclist.

Champagne was guaranteed to flow among Armstrong's US Postal team as they pedal from Montereau south of Paris to the finish line on the famed Champs-Elysees boulevard so the 32-year-old Texan can collect the winner's yellow jersey.

Only a crash or other disaster can stop him from becoming, in titles at least, the greatest of the Tour's 53 winners.

"To be on the verge of breaking history is incredibly special," he said Saturday. "If I make it, in yellow, climbing the top step tomorrow and making history will be the moment that I carry forward forever."

While Armstong's victory is all but assured when the race ends at about 5:30pm (1530 GMT), a furious battle was expected for the green jersey that rewards the race's best sprinter. Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd and Eric Zabel will still be vying for that title.

As overall leader, Armstrong set out last Saturday on the rolling 55km time trial course that looped south of Besancon, the birthplace of literary giant Victor Hugo. At the first time check 18km in, Armstrong was already 43 seconds quicker than Germany's Jan Ullrich, considered the American's chief rival when the race got under way July 3.

At the finish, the Texan almost caught Ivan Basso, even though the Italian started three minutes ahead of him.

The stage win was Armstrong's fifth this Tour, bettering his previous best of four in a single Tour since he inaugurated his reign in 1999 having conquered cancer.

"When I won the first one, I thought I could die and go away a happy man. To win six is very hard to put into words," he said. "I'm happy because it's over. I'm tired, in the head, in the legs. Everywhere."

Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's teammate, was third in Saturday's race against the clock, 1:27 back from Armstrong, but fast enough to overtake Basso for second in the overall standings. The German champion, who did not finish last year, was delighted.

"It's a dream come true ... The highlight of my career," he said.

Basso, the best young rider of 2002 and seventh last year, should finish third in Paris. Ullrich is destined for fourth -- his first time off the podium.

"Lance is riding in a different league. I have enormous respect for the way he rides. He deserved to win," the German said.

Not only did Armstrong overpower his adversaries from Day 1, but they never rose to the challenge of trying to dethrone him. Aside from Ullrich, Spanish climbers Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo flopped in the mountains and abandoned, and American Tyler Hamilton went home injured.

Armstrong's lead of 6:38 over Kloden is not his biggest margin of victory, which remains 7:37 over Alex Zulle of Switzerland in 1999. But it was far better than last year, when he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.

Then, he vowed to roar back this year. He has proved insatiable.

"I'm enjoying the competition more than ever, not to make history, not to make money, not for these things, but just for the thrill of getting on a bike and racing 200 other guys," he said.

Basso is 6:59 behind and Ullrich 9:09 back. With Kloden, they are the only riders within 10 minutes of Armstrong.

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