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By Francois Thomazeau, Reuters
The domination of American Lance Armstrong and Spaniard Miguel Induráin on the Tour de France in the past decade had made the last time trial of the race a mere lap of honor for the yellow jersey.
But on Saturday, the second timed test in the race, over 49km between Pornic and Nantes, should decide the final outcome and crown either Armstrong or Jan Ullrich champion.
Four-time champion Armstrong leads 1997 winner Ullrich by 65 seconds, but the German beat him by one-and-a-half minutes in last week’s time trial between Gaillac and Cap Decouverte, and an overhaul on the penultimate day cannot be ruled out.
“Maybe I will be beaten by Ullrich by a few seconds and lose the closest Tour in history,” Armstrong said after his loss in the first time trial.
But if his archrival should beat him one day before the finish in Paris, it would simply revive a Tour tradition.
The closest Tour in the race’s 100-year history also involved an American.
In 1989, Greg LeMond was 50 seconds behind France’s Laurent Fignon before the last day’s 24.5km time trial but finally won by eight seconds on the Champs-Elysees.
LeMond’s second Tour victory was such a shock that race director Jean-Marie Leblanc decided not to stage time trials on the last day anymore.
The decision did not ruin the suspense for the following year – LeMond again had to wait for the last time trial, on the penultimate day, to rid Italian Claudio Chiappucci of the leader’s yellow jersey.
A similar scenario saw a time-trial specialist beat a climber on the last Saturday in 1987, when Ireland’s Stephen Roche made up time on Pedro Delgado to beat the Spaniard by 40 seconds.
In 1978, five-time champion Bernard Hinault of France also had to wait for the last time trial to crush Joop Zoetemelk and win his first Tour after trailing the Dutchman by 14 seconds after the Alps.
France’s Jacques Anquetil had to wait for the ultimate timed stage to finally destroy compatriot and closest rival Raymond Poulidor for his fifth Tour title in 1964, at the end of a battle that left the country breathless for three weeks.
The first individual time trial in the Tour history set the trend in 1934 – France’s Antonin Magne won it and won the Tour as well. It finished in Nantes, like Saturday’s 19th stage.
Here’s how the two favorites in Saturday’s race of truth stack up:
Lance Armstrong (U.S.)
Team: U.S. Postal
Born: September 18, 1971 in Dallas
Tour record: winner 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002
Time trial victories on the Tour: 6+ 2 prologues
1999 – won prologue and both time trials in Metz and Futuroscope
2000 – won time trial in Mulhouse
2001 – won both time trials in Chamrousse and St Amand-Montrond
2002 – won prologue, lost first time trial to Colombia’s Santiago Botero in Lorient, won second time trial in Macon.
2003 – lost first time trial in Cap Decouverte to Jan Ullrich
Pros: The four-time champion has never been beaten in the second time trial of the Tour since his first win in 1999. Despite losing to Ullrich in the first time trial in Cap Decouverte, has shown a brilliant return to form winning a mountain stage in Luz Ardiden. Leads Ullrich by 1:05 overall.
Cons: Armstrong has struggled like never before in this Tour and has been less dominant in time trials in the last two years. Ullrich has never looked so strong since 1997.
Jan Ullrich (Germany)
Born: December 2, 1973
Tour record: Winner 1997, runner-up 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001 (last two times behind Armstrong).
Time trial victories on the Tour: 5
1996 – won the Tour’s second time trial in St Emilion
1997 – won the first Tour time trial in St Etienne but lost the second to Spain’s Abraham Olano
1998 – won both time trials in the Tour in Correze and Le Creusot.
1999 – did not compete
2000 – second behind Armstrong in the time trial in Mulhouse
2001 – lost both time trials to Armstrong
2002 – did not compete
2003 – won the first time trial in Cap Decouverte
Pros: Ullrich humbled Armstrong in the first time trial of the Tour between Gaillac and Cap Decouverte, winning by a minute and a half. He has never looked so fit since his victory in 1997.
Cons: Was not able to react when Armstrong attacked in Luz Ardiden. The weather is expected to be cloudy, which will better suit Armstrong, who unlike the German hates heat.