Cycling: Tour de France - Armstrong versus Le Monde

American nears victory, three years after beating cancer

LANCE ARMSTRONG put the final touch to his Tour de France triumph with an emphatic time trial victory that pushed his overall lead to more than seven and a half minutes on the eve of the Paris finale. The Texan raced into the Futuroscope theme park, near Poitiers, averaging 50-kph, to claim his third time trial victory with a nine-second beating of Switzerland's Alex Zulle.

After the scandal-ravaged race of last year, this Tour is a morale-booster for the Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc, but the first American winner since Greg LeMond nine years ago has also had to counter a spiteful media campaign.

Yesterday, watched by his mother Linda in a following team car, Armstrong, close to death from testicular cancer three years ago, was fastest over a flat 57 kilometres. In clocking one hour, eight minutes, and 17 seconds, he caught Spain's Fernando Escartin who had started three minutes before him.

Escartin was no match for the against-the-clock specialists, and lost his second overall position to Zulle who had trailed Armstrong by 24 seconds 15 kilometres from the finish.

After a slow start Armstrong's team-mate Tyler Hamilton sped into third place, one minute and 35 seconds slower than Armstrong. Escartin lost four minutes to Armstrong, but clung to third overall place, 10 minutes and 26 seconds adrift of the American.

Armstrong is the first rider since Spain's Miguel Indurain to win all three time trials, but his current overall margin is bigger than anything achieved by the Spanish giant in his five Tour victories. Apart from the German Jan Ullrich's success by nine minutes and nine seconds in 1997, it is the biggest margin since 1984 when Laurent Fignon beat the fellow Frenchman Bernard Hinault by 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

The 27-year-old Texan took the prologue, the first time trial over a similar distance in Metz two weeks ago, the first mountain stage in Sestriere and now this penultimate stage. Assuming he avoids injury or disaster on today's ride to the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong will be the first final winner since Laurent Fignon in 1984 to win four stages. The only time since the war a race leader has lost on the last day was in 1989, when LeMond won the second of his three Tour crowns, beating Fignon by eight seconds after a time trial on the Champs-Elysees.

Last week Armstrong took on the world. As if the hassle of the Tour de France was not enough, the American found himself warring with French newspaper Le Monde. "M'sieur Le Monde, are you calling me a liar or a doper," he snapped at a reporter who asked about the medical certificate that Armstrong supplied to the Tour medical team.

The Texan said that he had never taken anything when questioned about doping, then Le Monde revealed via a leaked medical report that traces of triamcinolone, a forbidden corticoid, were found in his sample. "I am being persecuted," he said. "The amount of corticoid was so minute that it was there one day and not the next. The traces are so small it has absolutely nothing to do with performance.

"When I was asked would I think of taking something, I thought of pills, inhalers, and injections. I did not consider skin cream to be taking something. Maybe it was a mistake on my part. This is not a doping story, but Le Monde are here for doping stories, and we are here to race our bikes."

Corticoids are contained in medications for asthma, rhinitis and allergies, and riders are permitted these so long as they submit a medical certificate to the Union Cycliste Internationale.

Armstrong could be suing Le Monde over their insinuations, which his team decided to shoot down by asking the UCI to break their code of silence on test results. The UCI agreed that this was an exceptional circumstance, and that without prejudicing the unconditional guarantee of confidentiality they made to riders, they would reveal that Armstrong had used a brand called Cemalyt.

This is a pomade for skin allergies, and contains triamcinolone, and the U.C.I. stated that they had received a medical certificate.

Le Monde's story alleged erroneously that Armstrong's test showed a ratio of 0.2. There is however no such measure for corticoids, only steroids. The French anti-doping laboratory claimed that all those tested had traces of corticoids, but all had medical certificates.

Today in the Champs-Elysees Armstrong will put all this behind him as the final stage becomes a victory parade from Arpajon into the capital. Armstrong has returned to the pinnacle. Now it is the turn of cycling to climb back after the doping debacle.

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