Olympic pursuit champion Bradley Wiggins came up short in his bid for an historic podium place for Britain when he finished the 20th stage behind Lance Armstrong on Saturday.
The Garmin rider is now set to finish the race fourth overall at 6:01 behind Spaniard Alberto Contador, Armstrong's teammate at Astana, who is virtually assured of his second crown on Sunday.
The 21st and final stage to Paris is usually dominated by the sprinters and riders battling for the race's green jersey.
Unless Wiggins decides to ignore racing etiquette and attack Armstrong, he has no chance of overcoming the 37-second deficit he has to the American, who is third overall at 5:24.
On the penultimate stage Wiggins hung on valiantly as Luxembourg's Andy Schleck launced a series of attacks to try and shake off Contador on the 21.1km climb to the summit of the legendary Mont Ventoux.
However the Englishman, who has won three track pursuit gold medals at the Olympics for Britain, struggled when Schleck launched his final attack just over 2km from the finish line.
Armstrong, a seven-time champion, was able to follow and finished in fifth place at 41 seconds behind stage winner Juan Manuel Garate, while Wiggins could only finish in 10th place at 1:03 behind the Spaniard.
Wiggins' fourth place, however will be a huge boost, both to his Garmin team and himself.
Known globally in the sport for being a track pursuit specialist, he may now be expected to challenge more often in the major three-week Tours of Italy, France and Spain.
"This is no one-off," his team manager Matt White declared on Friday. "Bradley will be back."
If he holds on to fourth place on Sunday Wiggins will equal Scot Robert Millar's feat for the best ever finish for a British rider on the Tour de France.
In 1984 Millar became Britain's highest ever finisher in a major Tour when he finished fourth and claimed the climber's main prize of the polka dot jersey.
Contador dreams of yellow jersey celebrations
With a second Tour de France victory now all but guaranteed, Spain's Alberto Contador says he is looking forward to celebrating on Paris' Champs Elysees after Sunday's final stage.
The 26-year-old yellow jersey holder held off a number of attacks from Saxo Bank leader Andy Schleck, who is second overall, on Saturday's 21.1km climb up Mont Ventoux to the finish line and ensured he rides to Paris as race leader.
Only a disaster will now stop Astana's Contador winning the yellow jersey for the second time following his 2007 triumph when the Tour concludes in Paris at the end of Sunday's 21st stage.
"I am very happy, I will now just celebrate with my family, friends - all the special people who have helped me," said Contador who finished fourth behind Saturday's stage winner and compatriot Juan Manuel Garate.
"It was the last - and hardest - climb of the race and a very difficult one," he added. "I just wanted to stay with Andy Schleck, he attacked several times and tried to get away, but I countered everytime. I am just very, very happy."
Schleck remains second at 4:11behind Contador, and despite his efforts he will go into the final stage with the same deficit after finishing nearly 40 seconds behind stage winner Garate alongside Contador.
America's seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong eventually finished the stage just behind in fifth place at 41 seconds behind Garate, meaning he will go into Sunday's stage virtually assured of finishing on the podium for the top three.
Armstrong is third on 5:24 while Britain's Bradley Wiggins should finish fourth overall at 6:01.
Armstrong not lamenting third place overall
Lance Armstrong said he will be happy with a place on the podium in Paris as he lies third overall after Saturday's 20th stage.
Having won the last of his seven Tour de France titles in 2005, Astana's Armstrong ended his four-year hiatus to compete in this year's race and will ride into Paris on Sunday in third behind yellow jersey holder and teammate Alberto Contador.
Luxemburg's 24-year-old Andy Schleck is at 4:11 behind the 26-year-old Spaniard, while Armstrong, 37, is at 5:24 and says he has no complaints on his Tour return especially having been up against younger rivals.
"I can't complain, for an old fart coming in here and getting on the podium with these young guys is not so bad," grinned the Texan.
Armstrong finished Saturday's 20th stage fifth at 41 seconds behind Spanish winner Juan Manuel Garate while Andy Schleck came home third at 38 seconds, with Astana's Contador just behind in the same time.
"It was pretty aggressive up there, there was a lot of wind and teams riding at the front," said Armstrong who said his pre-race plan was to stop fourth-placed Bradley Wiggins of Garmin and Saxo Bank's Frank Schleck in fifth.
Wiggins began the day only 15 seconds behind Armstrong and could have threatened his podium place. Traditionally there is no battle for the yellow jersey and podium places on the final stage.
Both riders are now just over 30 seconds behind the Texan, but a solid ride into Paris should leave him third on the podium at the Champs Elysees.
"The game plan was kinda simple, follow Wiggins and follow Frank Schleck and I had the legs to do that," said Armstrong who added huge numbers of fans and motor homes along the Mont Ventoux route had provided shelter for the riders.
"It wasn't as windy up there as advertised, it feels windy here at the top, but on the way up it was less than we thought," he added. "All the motor homes helped the situation and I have never seen so many people on the Ventoux.
"Hell, it seems like half of America showed up and all of France. It was so packed and when you have so many people it blocks a lot of the wind."
Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel admitted the internal competition between Contador and Armstrong had caused tension, but the Belgian who oversaw all seven of Armstrong's triumphs said that the overall result was satisfactory.
"We had our ups and downs," said the Belgian, who has now won nine Tour titles as manager having been manager of Discovery Channel when Contador triumphed in 2007. "But we came here with a strong team and have come out with three stage wins and the overall victory.
"That is something we want to savour."
With Armstrong set to return to the race next year with new team RadioShack, it sets the scene for an intriguing battle between the American, Luxemburger Andy Schleck and Contador, who has said he will not race with Armstrong next year.
Gutsy Garate saves Rabobank on the Ventoux
Spaniard Juan Manuel Garate dedicated his maiden victory on the Tour de France to his Rabobank team.
Rabobank came to the race hoping to challenge for the yellow jersey, but their team leader Denis Menchov, the Tour of Italy champion, went from bad to worse on a campaign littered with crashes and mediocre performances.
Having also lost riders through injury, the Dutch outfit were set to go home empty-handed and had been looking to Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire to lift morale on the ride to the Champs Elysees on Sunday.
On Saturday, Garate beat him to it when he capped a gruelling day in the saddle with victory on the finish line of the legendary Mont Ventoux.
Having been part of an earlier breakaway, he rode most of the 21.1km ascent in the company of German Tony Martin.
The former Spanish champion attacked once, was caught as he slowed down, but then launched another more decisive attack a few hundred metres from the summit to leave Martin down in second place.
"It is a huge day for me," said 33-year-old Garate after completing the 167km-long stage in just over four and a half hours. "Since the beginning of the Tour, the whole team has tried to win a stage, without managing it, but I did it today.
"Only last night, I dreamed of this moment, but did not dare think it would happen," he added. "But it has become a reality and I am here, I have done it."
© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar
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