A fourth win in five days for Lance Armstrong carries him even further clear, as Kloeden edges Basso
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Although Lance Armstrong will ride into Paris a minute or so short of his biggest ever winning margin in the Tour de France, another clear victory in today’s Besancon time trial ensured this would be his most successful Tour ever. By beating the rest of the field out of sight over a very tough 55-kilometre course, the US Postal team leader collected his fifth individual win of the race, one more than his previous best. Add in his team’s success in the team time trial, and last year’s struggle to the fifth Tour now looks like a temporary aberration rather than an indication that his powers are on the wane. Armstrong was quickest at every one of the four checks by some margin. Only between the first and second did he seem to falter slightly, when the large advantage he had already racked up against Jan Ullrich increased by just a second. At the finish the American was 1-01 ahead of the German, and only failed to catch his three-minute man, Ivan Basso, by a few dozen metres. Ullrich has gone better in the third week than he did in the second, but it looks likely that he and his T-Mobile team will leave the race without a stage win unless Erik Zabel can produce a burst of speed tomorrow the likes of which we have not seen from him in this race so far. T-Mobile’s consolation, though, is that Andreas Kloeden bumped himself up into second place by finishing 1-23 ahead of Basso. The German now holds the runner-up position by 21 seconds from the Italian, whose time trialling has been found wanting yet again. In fairness to Basso, sixth place in Besancon was a great effort and showed that the work he has put in with CSC team boss Bjarne Riis in an effort to improve in this discipline is paying off. He will, of course, be disappointed at losing second place, but he is a couple of years younger than Kloeden and may yet prove to be the more likely contender for the Tour in coming seasons. US Postal’s strength in depth was underlined as six of their riders finished in the top 16 on this stage, no less than five of them in the top 11. Floyd Landis took fourth to follow his impressive performance at Le Grand Bornand a couple of days ago, and looks an increasingly good prospect as a team leader if the rumours about his apparent desire to move on are to be believed. The United States, too, had reason to feel pleased. Despite the absence of Tyler Hamilton, who was second in the equivalent stage last year, the US had five finishers in the top 12, with special mention going to fifth-placed Bobby Julich. The CSC rider’s time was a couple of seconds quicker than team leader Basso’s and came after Julich has battled against a bad wrist injury picked up in the first week. Further down the classification, the white jersey switched from the fading Thomas Voeckler to the extremely promising Vladimir Karpets. The Russian took eighth on the stage as he finished six minutes faster than the Frenchman, who slipped back to third in the best young rider standings as Sandy Casar leapfrogged him as well. With the yellow, polka-dot and white jerseys all but decided, attention tomorrow will focus on the five riders who are still in with a chance of the points title. Danilo Hondo’s hopes are remote, but Stuart O’Grady, Erik Zabel and particularly Thor Hushovd could all deprive green jersey holder Robbie McEwen of a second points title if things go their way on the Champs Elyses tomorrow. Somewhere behind them, hopefully tucked safely in the pack, Armstrong will pedal into history as the first rider ever to win six Tour titles and lay definite claim to the honour of being the best rider the race has ever seen.