After the scandal-ravaged race of last year, this event has been a morale- booster for the Tour despite a spiteful media campaign against what will almost certainly be the first American winner since Greg LeMond nine years ago.
Yesterday, watched by his mother Linda in a following team car, Armstrong 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 15km from the finish.
After a slow start, Armstrong's team-mate Tyler Hamilton sped into third place, in one minute and 35 seconds. Escartin lost four minutes to Armstrong, but clung to third overall place, 10 minutes and 26 seconds adrift.
After his Stage victory, Armstrong dedicated his probable success to the "cancer community". The 27-year-old Texan, who fought off a near-fatal cancer of the testicles two years ago, said that he returned a stronger rider after his disease. "The illness was a good thing for me. Of course, I wouldn't want to get back there. But the illness made me come back with a new perspective."
Unable to finish the Tour on three of his four previous attempts, Armstrong used to be dismissed as a one-day rider. But when he returned last year, after 18 months out of action, he was a changed competitor. "Before, I trained hard and I tried to be professional, but I did not deserve a 100 mark. After the illness, I trained much harder than before and I eliminated distractions and watched my diet."
Extra motivation also came from those who did not believe he could make it back. When his cancer was discovered, Armstrong had just signed with French team Cofidis. "When I was in the middle of my illness, three months later, they tried to break the contract," he said. "I have thought about them in the last three weeks. I can tell them now that I won the Tour."
Armstrong will not have done that until later today, but already he is the first rider since Spain's Miguel Indurain to win all three time-trials, and 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 10min 32sec.
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 take 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 the 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." 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 UCI 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.