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The clock: Armstrong’s final hurdle

This is not the time for Lance Armstrong to take chances, push harder, let it all hang out. Unless, that is, he wants to check off the one accomplishment he's lacked on his final Tour de France: a stage win to call his own. The Discovery Channel captain has taken and held a commanding overall lead without winning a single stage, and Saturday's final time trial gives him an excellent chance to change that. The rolling 55.5km route at Saint-Etienne in central France should suit a fast roller and climber like Armstrong. But it will also severely test legs worn out by the thousands of

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By The Associated Press

This is not the time for Lance Armstrong to take chances, push harder, let it all hang out. Unless, that is, he wants to check off the one accomplishment he’s lacked on his final Tour de France: a stage win to call his own.

The Discovery Channel captain has taken and held a commanding overall lead without winning a single stage, and Saturday’s final time trial gives him an excellent chance to change that.

The rolling 55.5km route at Saint-Etienne in central France should suit a fast roller and climber like Armstrong. But it will also severely test legs worn out by the thousands of kilometers covered in the past three weeks by the 155 riders left in the race.

“It’s a tough course because it’s never flat,” Armstrong said Friday after protecting his lead of 2 minutes and 46 seconds over CSC’s Ivan Basso through stage 19. “It starts climbing almost immediately and there’s a lot of technical and tricky downhill sections. There’s a little bit of flat road near the end but it’s almost never flat.”

Time trials are raced with aerodynamic bikes, helmets and suits to reduce wind drag and save seconds. Armstrong has won 10 individual clock races in his Tour career. The last was the final time trial in 2004, on a rolling course similar to Saturday’s.

In contrast to his six previous winning Tours, Armstrong’s only victory this year was as a member of the Discovery Channel team, which won the team time trial.

He says T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion who will be fighting for a podium finish, will be hard to beat Saturday. But Armstrong’s children, Luke, Grace, and Isabelle, have joined him on the Tour – and it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t like for them to see daddy win.

“Big day,” Armstrong said. “I’m going to ride as hard as I can. I hope to win but there’s no guarantees in cycling.”

His priority, as it has been since he emerged from the Pyrenees with his comfortable lead intact, is to make sure that he finishes.

“I haven’t won a race this year. I forget those things,” he said. “It’s important but it’s not everything. If I get second and somebody takes a little bit of time out of me, then that’s okay too.”

The ultimate goal is Sunday, when Armstrong expects to ride up the crowd-lined Champs-Elysees in Paris for the last time to collect his seventh win. There, at age 33, he will retire.

That final ride is largely ceremonial, with sprinters battling at the end for the honor of winning the stage on France’s most famous boulevard. Armstrong prefers to sip champagne in the saddle as Paris approaches and then safely negotiate the cobblestones of the city.

Saturday’s time-trial course loops north of Saint-Etienne before doubling back into the city.

“When I did it in training before the Tour it was incredibly hot,” Armstrong said. “The weather seems to have cooled down but it’s going to be a tough one and there will be good time gaps.”

As race leader, he will start last. In addition to his advantage over Basso, Armstrong leads Rabobank’s Mickael Rasmussen by 3:46. Ullrich is fourth, 5:58 back. A powerful roller, Ullrich is looking to catch Rasmussen, who is better in mountain climbs, and knock him off the podium.

Armstrong calculated Friday that with the time trial and the final ride into Paris, he has just “five more hours in my career as a cyclist.”

But he is ready to move on.

“I’m not terribly sad about that,” he said.