Hamilton finishes second; now 4th on GC
The anticipated Tour de France clash between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich came to a soggy conclusion in Saturday’s 49-kilometer 19th stage from Pornic to Nantes.
Armstrong all but sewed up his fifth overall title while Ullrich will settle for second a fifth time.
Armstrong widened his margin to Ullrich to 1 minute, 16 seconds in the Tour’s penultimate stage and only has to avoid disaster Sunday before becoming the fifth man to win the Tour five times.
Armstrong 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 other four members of the elite five-win club: the late Jacque Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
“This was absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons. Physically I was not super, tactically we made some mistakes made,” said Armstrong, who finished third behind stage winner David Millar (Cofidis).
“This close one feels different and feels better than all the other ones,” Armstrong said who pumped his right fist as he crossed the line. “I definitely feel like I have missed or dodged a lot of bullets.”
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, a winner at stage 15. “I had a lot of luck. I’d always rather be lucky than good.”
First Armstrong had to hold off Ullrich in Saturday’s rainy and windy time trial. The German took 1:36 out on the Texan in the Tour’s first time trial, but Armstrong was confident knowing that 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 a 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 (in 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 1.5km, before the Texan began to match his pace. Ullrich and Armstrong stayed even through the second time check when disaster struck.
With 12km to go, Ullrich sped into one of the many traffic roundabouts that dotted the course. The big German leaned heavily into the first righthand portion of turn, causing his rear wheel to slip and he went sprawling to the ground, slipping all the way across the wet asphalt on his right side into the protective hay bales.
It was the same spot where Gerolsteiner’s Uwe Peschel, the day’s early leader at checkpoint 1, crashed for the second time of the day, this time breaking a rib in the process.
“I tried to win the day, but I fell down and everything is finished,” Ullrich said. “I knew the Tour was 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 place. I believe the next years will be mine.”
There was still reason to celebrate in the Bianchi camp. Ullrich came 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 simply finishing the race in order to prepare for next year 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 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.”
It’s about Millar time
Cofidis David Millar benefited from the battle between Ullrich and Armstrong and scored an important stage victory some three weeks after a narrow and painful loss in the opening prologue when his chain fell off.
“For me it wasn’t about revenge. I’ve suffered so much the past seven, eight days. I was just happy the last two days to ride my bike and have good health,” said Millar, who scored his third career Tour stage victory.
“Last Wednesday or Thursday, when we went to Bayonne, my teammates told me I have to go for the time trial. I was not feeling so good at that point,” said Millar, who suffered bronchitis in the Tour’s second week.
“I’ve been very pessimistic in this Tour because of what happened in the prologue,” Millar said. “I didn’t even want to watch the race. I didn’t think I would win until Lance crossed the line.”
Millar was flying over the course, hitting 60 kph on the flat straights. With just 4km to go, Millar crashed coming into a left-hand turn. He quickly scrambled on his bike, but he lost about 15 to 20 seconds and likely the chance to set the Tour’s fastest time trial speed record.
“I have a remarkable strength to be able to keep my head very cool. I had not been taking many risks. I crashed, got back up, got back on and went on,” said the 26-year-old Scot. “I was very lucid. I figured 50 percent of the peloton was going to come down today.”
Hamilton keeps on surging
CSC’s Tyler Hamilton moved into fourth overall Sunday after yet another stunning performance, vaulting over both of the Euskaltel riders Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia in the overall standings.
“I benefited when Jan Ullrich crashed, Lance let up a little bit because he didn’t have to push so. That’s why I beat Lance and Jan,” said Hamilton, who’s raced since the end of Stage 1 with a fractured right collarbone. “The course was very dangerous and very slippery. At one point my pedal slipped out, but I rode conservative enough not to crash.”
More importantly for Hamilton, he moved ahead two places in the overall standings. While it’s painfully close to the final top-three podium, Hamilton said he was satisfied with his Tour performance.
“I’m very pleased to move into fourth place. I didn’t think I could take the time out on (Haimar) Zubeldia because he beat me in the first time trial,” Hamilton said. “I’ve done everything I could do in this Tour. Despite the problems, I’m very satisfied.”
Armstrong’s win and Hamilton’s fourth place equals the best-ever U.S. performance at a Tour de France, when American Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France and his La Vie Claire teammate Andy Hampsten finished fourth. Hampsten, of course, went on to win the 1988 Giro d’Italia as a member of the American 7-Eleven team.
In any case, Armstrong will return hoping to achieve what no other rider has done.
“I’ll be back next year, and I’m not coming back to be second, but hopefully to come back to the level I was in the first four Tours. Because this was not acceptable,” he said. Sunday’s final 20th stage is a 152km ride from Ville d’Avray on the outskirts Paris to the centre of the French capital.
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