Armstrong seals position among the great riders

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The Independent Online

Lance Armstrong settled the Tour de France, and any doubts his critics may have had, by beating the world time trial champion, Jan Ullrich, in a highly charged duel.

Lance Armstrong settled the Tour de France, and any doubts his critics may have had, by beating the world time trial champion, Jan Ullrich, in a highly charged duel.

The American raced to victory by 25 seconds, and came close to matching his compatriot Greg LeMond's record speed in a Tour time trial in 1989 with an average speed of 53.986kph. LeMond clocked 54.545kph to snatch the yellow jersey from the Frenchman Laurent Fignon on the last day by eight seconds.

Armstrong extended his overall lead to 6min 2sec over the German in front of huge crowds - police estimated Thursday's at 1.5 million - roared the riders over the pan-flat course from Fribourg-en-Brisgau.

"It was a big fight. I did not expect to beat him in his own back yard, especially with huge crowds that were so obviously rooting for him," Armstrong said. "I had an empty feeling until now. With this win my Tour is complete. This one has been more satisfying. Last year was special but without Ullrich and Marco Pantani, so there was criticism of my performance. This time they were here, so it is definitely a vindication.

"I thought about those critics a lot through the winter, spring, and even riding on Hautacam mountain in this Tour. You could have filled a team with the people who could have won the Tour after I had won it. Everyone said 'if he could win, so could I'."

He regretted his battle with Pantani. "It was a waste of time and energy. I provoked him, and Il Pirata walked the plank, and I almost lost the Tour."

Armstrong was recalling the day on the Joux Plane mountain when he cracked, and Pantani went out of the Tour. "It could have been a lot worse than it was. I was prepared to lose three minutes, but I did not lose that in the end."

After this battle between Armstrong and Ullrich the scene is set for another confrontation in the Olympic time trial in Sydney. "That is my next big objective," Armstrong said.

Laurent Jalabert sought comfort from this time trial for a poor Tour in which he is more than one hour and 50 minutes off the pace. He found it by displacing David Millar from the head of the leaderboard by nine seconds, and setting the third fastest average speed, 51.017kph, in Tour history, until Armstrong stormed in. "The last few days I have not been in great shape, so I decided to find out where I stood," Jalabert said. "It doesn't change my Tour. I came to do better, so I must fight until the end."

Millar set the Tour talking when he won the opening time trial at the Futuroscope, but he was expecting to find yesterday's stretch too far for him. He finished seventh fastest, 3min 56sec slower than Armstrong.

"Because of the wind the time trial was very tough, but there were great crowds and that helps a lot," Millar said. "The long straights were psychologically difficult and because there was no end in sight it made the course even harder. I cannot say that I had a good Tour but I finished well, and I have learned a lot over the three weeks."

Millar, too, will be in Sydney for the big race against the clock, and so will Chris Boardman, who missed what would have been his last Tour which, but, Olympics apart, he has a new target before retirement. The world hour record-holder is attacking the world hour record mark set by Belgian legend Eddy Merckx 28 years ago. It is a case of attempting to put the record straight.

Rule changes have eliminated the hi-tech bikes such as that used by Boardman to win Olympic gold in 1992 and set the world hour record at 56.375km. He wants to set a world hour record on a standard track bike and is aiming at Merckx's mark, 49.431km, set at altitude in Mexico, and the last ridden on a standard bike.

"Chris's record is losing credibility because no one can attack it," Boardman's business manager, Peter Woodworth, said.