Armstrong plays it safe

STAGE 19: American Lance Armstrong maintained his comfortable lead of 2 minutes, 46 seconds over Italian Ivan Basso, and 3


Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 22

Italian Giuseppe Guerini won Friday's 19th stage of the Tour de France, with overall leader Lance Armstrong riding safely behind in the main pack.

Guerini zoomed away from three other riders coming into Le Puy-en-Velay -- the finish of the 153.5km last stage before Saturday's final time trial.

That race against the clock should determine the top riders' standings ahead of Sunday's final ride into Paris, where Armstrong is expected to collect his seventh straight, and last, Tour title.

On Friday, Armstrong maintained his comfortable lead of 2 minutes, 46 seconds over Italian Ivan Basso, and 3:46 on Mickael Rasmussen from Denmark.

Armstrong was stronger than his main rivals in the first time trial at the start of the Tour on July 2 and is looking to make his mark again Saturday.

It offers him a last chance to win an individual stage this year. In all of his previous six winning Tours, he always won at least one stage.

But so far at this Tour, his only stage victory was a collective one in the team time trial with his Discovery Channel squad.

"Big day," said Armstrong of Saturday's stage. "I'll give it everything I have."

That time trial, over 55.5km in Saint-Etienne, will be the last of his storied career. The 33-year-old American is retiring at the finish line in Paris. He calculated Friday that he has just "five more hours in my career as a cyclist" and said that he's "not terribly sad about that."

Guerini, who rides for the German T-Mobile squad, covered Friday's hilly route from Issoire in 3 hours, 33 minutes and 4 seconds. Armstrong's group, which included Basso, Rasmussen and other leading riders, came in 4:31 later.

Guerini beat Sandy Casar of France, Franco Pellizotti of Italy and Spain's Oscar Pereiro. Those three riders failed to react when Guerini sprinted away from them with a little more than 1km to go.

The stage win was the second of Guerini's Tour career. In his first, up the legendary Alpine climb to the Alpe d'Huez ski station in 1999, he recovered and won after smashing into a fan who was trying to get a close-up photograph of him from the middle of the road. Guerini fell to the ground. The spectator picked him up and pushed him on his way.

"This was less dangerous than L'Alpe d'Huez," the Italian said of his win at Le Puy-en-Velay in the Massif central mountains.