Losing a quarter of a minute on the last stage of the centenary Tour de France yesterday was an apt reminder for Lance Armstrong that in all his five consecutive victories he has never had such a tough job to reach Paris in the yellow jersey.
Armstrong's last-minute time-loss was a result of the peloton splitting on the final lap of the Champs-Elysées circuit, with nearly half of the 147 finishers simply deciding they had had enough hard racing. The Texan, close to the back, was caught out.
The 31-year-old's overall advantage was cut to 1min 1sec and, given the closeness to the finish, this proved entirely symbolic. But the American admitted afterwards he stood on the Champs-Elysées podium to receive his last yellow jersey "a very, very tired man".
He is not the only one to have felt the pace: the 2003 Tour has been the fastest on record, averaging 40.909 kph (25.421mph), far outstripping the previous best 40.273kph set in 1999.
Five years ago also saw the American's first victory in the race, but after four Tours of near-monotonous domination by the Texan, in 2003 the US Postal leader has been virtually at breaking point far more often than he would like.
Taking the lead at Alpe d'Huez seemed par for Armstrong's course, but the number of attacks from his rivals he had had to face on the 21 hairpins leading to cycling's most famous summit did not augur so well.
That omen was confirmed at the Gaillac time-trial, where Armstrong lost 96sec to Ullrich, the German rapidly becoming the American's main opponent as others, like Spaniard Joseba Beloki, crashed out.
The 1997 Tour winner squeezed Armstrong's lead to just 15 seconds on the first of the Pyrenean ascents at Ax-3 Domaines, but 48 hours later, the American proved the tide had turned just in time by taking 40 back on the German with a devastating win at the Luz-Ardiden ski station.
Armstrong's return to strength was confirmed in Saturday's time-trial, where Ullrich crashed in the final 10 kilometres, reducing his dreams of a second Tour to ashes.
"My form hasn't been so good so strategy has played a much more important part in this year's Tour than in other years." Armstrong admitted. "I've had to play a calculating game, like letting some rivals go up the road, and controlling others." The key to his final victory, he insisted, was "taking that time at Luz-Ardiden. When I attacked I was desperate. I knew it was the only way I could win the Tour. I've been lucky as well," Armstrong admitted. "Nearly going down when Beloki crashed" - not to mention having to ride 100 yards through a field to rejoin the peloton - "was probably the closest moment, but there have been plenty of others. And I'd rather be lucky than good."
The Frenchman Richard Virenque, whose sixth King of the Mountains victory this year puts him on an equal footing with the joint record holders, Lucien Van Impe and Federico Bahamontes, argued that "Armstrong has played with fire, but he's always known how to win the Tour even when he's been really rough. He's remained in control." Armstrong's weaknesses, though, have become one of the strengths of the centenary Tour. As the race grew in interest, television viewing figures rocketed by six per cent to 47.4 of audience shares on the most popular stages.
Even with Armstrong finally secure in his yellow jersey since Saturday, the final competition to be decided, the points jersey, helped maintain the tension right down to the last metre of racing yesterday afternoon. Awarded to the most consistent finisher, one Australian, Robbie McEwen, began the final stage in the green leader's jersey, but another, Baden Cooke, wore it on the Champs-Elysées after just squeezing McEwen out of second place behind the stage winner, Jean Patrick Nazon.
If this was an enthralling race, reports on Sunday morning that an unnamed Tour rider had returned a positive dope test for the performance-enhancing substance EPO were an uncomfortable reminder that banned drugs have not disappeared from cycling. Officials were quick to deny that the rider in question was a big hitter, but the news has painful echoes of police arresting the wife of the Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas, third last year, on the last day of the Tour with a car-boot load of drugs.
Armstrong has now drawn equal, as was widely predicted, with the four other winners of the Tour on five occasions - Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil. The three still living - Hinault, Merckx and Indurain - recognised the Texan's achievement by joining him on the podium in Paris yesterday.
"I don't compare myself to those guys," Armstrong insisted afterwards. "That's for people to do in 20 or 30 years' time, not me." None the less, should he achieve his aim of taking six wins next July, an all-time record, he may find the comparisons start rather sooner.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
RESULTS AND FINAL STANDINGS
Saturday: Stage 19 (individual time trial from Pornic to Nantes, 49km, 30.6 miles) 1 D Millar (GB) Cofidis 54min 5sec
2 T Hamilton (US) Team CSC +9sec
3 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service +14
4 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi +25; 5 L Bodrogi (Hun) Quick Step +26; 6 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal Service +56; 7 V Hugo Peña (Col) US Postal Service +1:00; 8 G Hincapie (US) US Postal Service 1:08; 9 S Chavanel (Fr) Brioches +1:12; 10 M Bruseghin (It) Fassa Bortolo +1:26. Selected: 11 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole +1:38; 16 A Vinokourov (Kazak) Team Telekom s/t; 17 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel +2:02; 19 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel +2:08.
Yesterday: Stage 20 (Ville d'Avray to Paris, 152km, 95 miles)
1 J-P Nazon (Fr) Jean Delatour 3hr 38min 49sec
2 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeux.com
3 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto
4 L Paolini (It) Quick Step; 5 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole; 6 O'Grady; 7 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 8 R Vainsteins (Lat) Caldirola; 9 G Glomser (Aut) Saeco; 10 D Nazon (Fr) Brioches. Selected: 59 Ullrich; 74 Millar all s/t; 112 Armstrong +15sec.
1 Armstrong 83hr 41min 12sec
2 Ullrich +1min 01sec
3 Vinokourov +4:14
4 Hamilton +6:17; 5 Zubeldia +6:51; 6 Mayo +7:06; 7 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo +10:12; 8 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole 12:28; 9 C Sastre (Sp) CSC 18:49; 10 F Mancebo (Sp) ibanesto.com +19:15. Selected: 55 Millar +1:54:38
POINTS (green jersey)
1 Cooke 216 points
2 McEwen 214
3 Zabel 188
4 Hushovd 173; 5 L Paolini (It) Quick Step 156; 6 J-P Nazon 154; 7 O'Grady 153; 8 F Guidi (It) Bianchi 122; 9 Ullrich 112; 10 D Nazon (Fr) Brioches 107
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS (polka-dot jersey)
1 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step 324pts
2 L Dufaux (Swit) Alessio 187
3 Armstrong 168
4 Moreau 137; 5 J M Mercado (Sp) ibanesto.Com 136; 6 Mayo 130; 7 Zubeldia 125; 8 Ullrich 124; 9 Hamilton 116; 10 Bettini 100.
Teams: 1 CSC 248:18:18; 2 ibanesto.com +21:46; 3 Euskaltel +44:59; 4 US Postal +45:53; 5 Bianchi +1:12:40
Youth (under-25) standings (white jersey): 1 D Menchov (Rus) ibanesto 84:00:56; 2 M Astarloza (Sp) AG2R +42:29; 3 Mercado +1:02:48; 4 S Chavanel (Fr) Brioches 1:05:17; 5 A Flickinger (Fr) AG2R 1:09:09Reuse content