In a head to head battle with every other rider in the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong won his first stage victory this year, proving he is the fastest cyclist on the French roads and the man who will cruise to victory tomorrow on the fabled Champs-Elysees.
Armstrong racing St. Etienne time trial
Armstrong beat the next fastest cyclist, his longtime rival Jans Ullrich (T-Mobile), by 23 seconds in Saturday's Stage 20 time trial. Ivan Basso (CSC), the rider in second place in the overall standings, was 1:54 back.
No one could come close to matching Armstrong's pace over the 34.5-mile time trial course. And no one will threaten him as he pedals toward the top podium in Paris for a historic seventh time.
"I wanted to go as hard as I could and represent the yellow jersey. I honestly didn't know if I could do it," Armstrong told the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), calling the victory a "pleasant surprise."
If it was a dream day for Armstrong, it was a nightmare for the rider in third place coming into the day, Mickael Rasmussen of Rabobank.
Already the winner of the king of the mountains competition, Rasmussen had hoped to fight off Ullrich and keep a place on the podium in Paris. But going around a roundabout just a few miles into the race, Rasmussen's bike slipped out from under him and he skidded across the pavement.
It was only the beginning of a disastrous day that would include four bike changes and another serious fall for the Danish ridera flight over his handlebars after ridding off the shoulder midway through the day.
Rasmussen finished 77th for the day, lost his hopes for third place, and dropped all the way down to seventh in the Tour overall.
Armstrong passed the roundabout with no delay, but crossed through the first time check a troubling seven seconds behind Ullrich, who Armstrong said yesterday had the best chance to win today.
"When I got to the first check, I thought this could be an interesting day," Armstrong told OLN after the finish.
But Armstrong picked up the pace up the hill and over the final miles. By the 21-mile mark, he had 19 seconds on Ullrich, expanding that to a gap of 32 seconds three miles later. Finishing the day's loop back into the streets of Saint-Etienne, he even launched a sprint, standing up to squeeze every last rotation out of his tires.
Armstrong afterwards said he his happy the end is in sight, where he will claim a historic seventh consecutive overall victory in the Tour de France.
"They are all special. The first one was incredibly special," Armstrong told OLN, with his three children climbing on his back and around his knees. "This one is nice just to be done, to be retired, and move on in life and take care of these three guys."
Rounding out the top riders of the day, Ullrich's second place finish kept him ahead of the hard-charging Alexandre Vinokourov of T-Mobile, who finished third, 1:17 behind Armstrong. Team CSC's Bobby Julich beat Basso, his captain, for fourth place, finishing 1:33 back. Basso crossed the line in fifth.
With champagne in hand tomorrow, Armstrong will have a four minute, forty second advantage on Basso, and 6:21 on Ullrich, with no challengers for the podium in sight. The fourth place rider, team Illes Balears' Francisco Mancebo, is one second shy of ten minutes back.