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Armstrong Bids Adieu to Rivals

Tour de France: He wins time trial in 19th stage to prove he has no peers on the eve of a fourth consecutive title.


PARIS — There were moments of surprise and suspense. There was even hopeful talk from erstwhile rivals of a new era in cycling. But with Saturday's penultimate stage--an individual test against the clock--Lance Armstrong proved once again that he still dominates the Tour de France, outpacing all opponents in power, speed and sheer determination.

Barring some unforeseen event, Armstrong will ride today onto the Champs-Elysee as the winner of his fourth consecutive Tour de France, becoming only the fifth rider--and the first American--to win cycling's most grueling contest four times.

His path to victory was largely set in the mountain stages of the Pyrenees and the Alps, when he simply overpowered his rivals and took a commanding lead that he never relinquished. He made his push to the front of the pack in the 11th stage of the 20-stage tour--a 98-mile slog in the Pyrenees from Pau to La Mongie that he finished with a late sprint seven seconds ahead of Spaniard Joseba Beloki.

Armstrong cemented his victory in Macon, racing through a 31-mile time trial through the Beaujolais vineyards at an average speed of 29 mph. He finished in 1 hour 3 minutes 50 seconds, a full 52 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas. Rumsas had been leading for much of the stage until he had problems with loose screws on his handlebars during his final descent.

Armstrong extended his overall lead to 7 minutes 17 seconds, his second-largest winning margin since he won the 1999 Tour by 7 minutes 37 seconds. And that Tour four years ago was remarkable enough, since it marked Armstrong's comeback to the sport after a battle with testicular cancer that ravaged his body and forced him to undergo brain surgery and months of painful chemotherapy.

The time trial was also a sort of vindication for the 30-year-old Texan, coming 12 days after the 34-mile time trial on July 15 across wind-swept Brittany. Armstrong had been expected to win that stage but instead found himself in the rare position of pulling in second, behind upstart Colombian Santiago Botero, with the Kelme team.

It was after that time trial that Armstrong's rivals sensed blood, and began predicting that the American who had so dominated the sport was finally losing his form.

"The Tour has changed," boasted Spanish rider Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who at that stage held the overall yellow leader's jersey. "Armstrong isn't as strong in the time trials as he was a year ago."

Even Armstrong at the time seemed to go along, perhaps coaxing his opponents into overconfidence. "The Tour isn't monotone after all," he said after that disappointment. "There are other riders out there."

Saturday, it was Armstrong in yellow and on the podium taking the bouquet of flowers and kissing the cheeks of the girls in yellow. Gonzalez de Galdeano finished fifth, 1 minute 42 seconds back, and Beloki was ninth over the line, 2:11 after Armstrong. His time was enough to keep him in second place overall.

Beloki, for a time seen as the strongest competitor to Armstrong, seems content now to arrive in second place at the Champs-Elysee.

"Unless something strange happens, I think I should finish second in Paris," Beloki said.

Armstrong gave credit to his fellow riders on the U.S. Postal Service team during a Saturday news conference. Without comparing his team and performance with those of the greats of the past, he said, "Every year is different and every era is different. But I don't know how a team could be any stronger."

Others were even more effusive in placing Armstrong among the pantheon of great cyclists.

"Comparisons are always odious, but there is no doubt that Armstrong is one of the great riders," said 1988 Spanish champion Pedro Delgado, in an interview with the Spanish sports daily Marca. "There are two reasons why--first, his physical power, and second, for his meticulous approach to everything, including his preparation, his bikes, and his team."

Jean-Marie Leblanc, director of the 2002 Tour, said, "At the start, we all knew that Lance Armstrong would not have rivals of his worth.

"Armstrong was far too superior, far too much of a master of this sport."



Tour at a Glance

A look at Saturday's 19th stage of the 89th Tour de France:

Stage: An individual time trial of 31 miles from Regnie-Durette to Macon in central France.

Winner: Three-time defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong, in 1 hour 3 minutes 50 seconds. Raimondas Rumsas of Lithuania finished second, 53 seconds behind. It was the 15th Tour stage victory of Armstrong's career and stretched his lead in the overall standings by more than 2 minutes to 7:17 with one stage left.

How others fared: Joseba Beloki of Spain, who's second in the overall standings, finished ninth Saturday, 2:11 behind.

Quote of the day: "After the first time trial, everyone said, 'Armstrong isn't good at time trials.' Today, I was very motivated to come back with a win."--Armstrong, who finished second in a time trial July 15.

Next stage: Today's 20th and final stage is 89 miles from Melun to the Champs Elysees in Paris. It's traditionally a leisurely, ceremonial ride.



*--* Saturday's 19th Stage 31-mile individual time trial 1. Lance Armstrong, United States 1:03.50 2. Raimondas Rumsas, 53 seconds back Lithuania 3. Laszlo Bodrogi, Hungary 1:06 4. David Millar, Britain 1:14 5. Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Spain 1:42


*--* Overall Standings Through 19th stage 1. Armstrong 78:34:25 2. Joseba Beloki, Spain 7:17 back 3. Rumsas 8:17 4. Santiago Botero, Colombia 13:10 5. Gonzalez de Galdeano 13:54


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