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A look ahead to Stage 20: Perfect ending for Armstrong?

This is it: the final time trial of Lance Armstrong’s career. A time trial that offers him the chance to take his only stage win of this Tour, and his first victory of any sort in the 2005 season. If that is not motivation enough for the Discovery Channel team leader and six-time defending champion then there is the desire to impress some of the special guests, such as politician John Kerry and movie star Tom Hanks, who have already arrived at the Tour for Armstrong’s gala celebration banquet Sunday night in Paris. Armstrong goes into his last truly competitive event — Sunday’s road race

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By John Wilcockson

This is it: the final time trial of Lance Armstrong’s career. A time trial that offers him the chance to take his only stage win of this Tour, and his first victory of any sort in the 2005 season. If that is not motivation enough for the Discovery Channel team leader and six-time defending champion then there is the desire to impress some of the special guests, such as politician John Kerry and movie star Tom Hanks, who have already arrived at the Tour for Armstrong’s gala celebration banquet Sunday night in Paris.

Armstrong goes into his last truly competitive event — Sunday’s road race into the Champs-Elyséesm which is pretty much for show — in a position of enormous strength. He has an overall lead of 2:46 over runner-up Ivan Basso of CSC, who is starting the 55.5km stage 20 time trial three minutes ahead of the man in the yellow jersey. Given the tremendous form that Armstrong has shown ever since the opening time trial in the Vendée three weeks ago, he can probably double that lead over the Italian.

The course that Armstrong reconnoitered twice just before the Tour is one of the most challenging in recent years. From downtown St. Etienne, the course is flat and fast for only the first 4km before reaching the first climb, a steady 7km up through the village of St. Héand and into the Lyonnais hills. The first time check (17km) is close to the day’s high point at 2769 feet elevation (more than 1000 feet above the start) along a twisting ridge road.

Around half-distance, a tortuous descent, first in the trees, then twisting down through grass fields, drops to the village of St. Romain-en-Jarez at 1598 feet before a 5km Cat.3 climb lifts the riders back up to 2454 feet at the Col de la Gachet (40km) for the second time split. The final 15km heads down a narrow, winding descent and then back into St. Etienne on flat city streets for the final 5km.

Just beyond the summit of the Col de la Gachet, the course passes a monument erected in memory of Andreï Kivilev, the French-based Kazakh rider killed in a crash in the 2003 Paris-Nice whose family still lives in the area. Fans holding banners for the Kivi fan club are stationed there today, ready to cheer on their current favorite, Alex Vinokourov, who was a close friend of Kivilev.

Besides Armstrong’s and Basso’s incentive to finish 1-2, current fourth-place Jan Ullrich has to put in the time trial of his life to overcome third-place Michael Rasmussen by 2:13 to finish on the Paris podium. The German superstar has the knowledge that the last time the Tour held its major time trial at St.Etienne, in 1997, he won the stage by more than three minutes and went on to win the Tour.

Given Ullrich’s mission to overtake Rasmussen, there could be a close struggle with Armstrong for the stage victory. Besides knowing this difficult course very well, Armstrong knows that he did one of his best-ever time trials on a course that used some of these same roads at the 2003 Dauphiné Libéré. Besides Armstrong, Ullrich and Basso, the other men who look likely to do well Saturday are Aussie Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), and the Americans Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), George Hincapie (Discovery), Floyd Landis (Phonak) and perhaps CSC’s Bobby Julich.