Lance Armstrong secured his fifth consecutive Tour de France win in a gripping final time-trial between Pornic and Nantes yesterday, with Britain's David Millar a surprised and delighted winner of the stage and Jan Ullrich seeing all chance of beating the American go up in smoke or rather raindrops when he skidded and crashed on the waterlogged course with 10 kilometres to go.
Battered and grim-faced, Ullrich finished 25 seconds down in fourth place on Millar, his dream of repeating his 1997 Tour win wrecked by an anonymous roundabout somewhere west of Nantes.
The contrast between the German and the 31-year-old Texan, who punched his right fist twice in the air as he tore across the line, could hardly have been greater; third on the stage but finally sure of his first place overall in Paris.
"When I heard that Ullrich had crashed, I took no risks in the final 10 kilometres," Armstrong admitted. "It was just too dangerous by far to do that."
Having started with an advantage of just 65 seconds, Armstrong will now don his final yellow jersey today with an increased margin of 1min 16sec. It's a tiny gap, but one that allows him to join that select band of Tour greats Anque-til, Hinault, Merckx and Indurain as a five-times Tour winner.
Ullrich, on the other hand, knew he had to drive hard in the heavy drizzle that accompanied the two rivals for the yellow jersey on the 49km course. Churning a huge gear, the German initially gained a five-second advantage in four kilometres relative to Armstrong on the long straights that predominated, but the American was always in control.
"I knew that I had to start easier, because with my advantage of more than a minute, there was no point in taking risks," the US Postal leader pointed out.
Legs flailing furiously with his typically high-speed cadence of 115rpm, Armstrong seemed oblivious to the conditions. But where he could afford to be marginally more cautious on the course's few early corners, his German rival's back wheel was bouncing around dangerously as he powered round the curves.
Come the second, crucial, time check after two thirds of the course, Ullrich's advantage had slipped to just two seconds and the Bianchi pro began to up his speed even further, screaming round the bends at speeds touching 50kph.
The accident was waiting to happen, and on a roundabout 12km from the finish, the German's front wheel suddenly twisted, and the 29-year-old skidded from the centre of the roundabout into some plastic-covered haybales.
He was uninjured but evidently shaken; his Bianchi manager, Rudy Pevenage, had him up and back on his bike in under 20 seconds, but Pevenage was in tears as he ran back to the car, aware that Ullrich's dream of a second Tour was finally, definitively, lost.
"As soon as I saw the speed he was going at in the first kilometre, I knew he was going to go," Millar said afterwards. "After you crash once, that's it." On the final few kilometres, Ullrich rode like a beaten man, going through each corner almost at a standstill. Armstrong, unsurprisingly, went even slower.
Armstrong's characteristically meticulous approach had paid off: the American had checked out the course as early as April, then repeated the process early on Saturday morning. Ullrich, on the other hand, preferred to remain in bed and do his reconnaissance by watching the stage on video.
The undoubted beneficiary of Armstrong's caution and Ullrich's shattered ambition was Millar, himself a victim of a crash three kilometres from the line. "It was like Lance gave me a present by going so slowly," Millar said. The Scot had earlier been on the point of abandoning with bronchitis. "I took no risks in those last kilometres and I still fell off, it was like a skating rink."
Most of the attention, understandably, was focused on Armstrong, whose hold on the yellow jersey, taken at L'Alpe d'Huez, had looked terribly fragile until he countered with a superb victory at Luz Ardiden last Monday.
Victory in the final time-trial which Armstrong has failed to take for the first time in five years would doubtless have been the icing on the cake. But to take his fifth consecutive Tour in the race's centenary year will doubtless provide ample consolation for his hardest road ever to Paris and the Champs-Elysées.
And a sixth, record-breaking Tour is already on his mind. "The stress level has been higher than any other Tour, and I'll focus on 2004 in due time, but not yet. But I'll be back," Armstrong warned.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'