Cycling: Flecha strikes a blow for the Tour's journeymen

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Journalists were kept busy yesterday working out all possible connections between cycling and militaristic imag-ery following the lone stage victory by Juan Antonio Flecha.

The Spaniard's surname means "arrow", and he made sure nobody needed a translation when he went through the gesture of unleashing one just before he crossed the line.

"I've always done that in my biggest victories," the 25-year-old said, although he has not been pulling many arrows from his quiver recently: his results sheet has been lacking in wins for the last two years. Or, as Flecha himself put it, "there have been lots of jokes about how the arrowhead needs sharpening and the bowstring tightening recently."

The Ibanesto rider's aim was certainly true enough, though, when he shot off from a break of eight riders with 10km to go and kept his pursuers at around a bow's length all the way to the finish.

Flying along on pancake flat roads, Flecha explained he was confident of hitting the bull's-eye in his finish target because he knew the route exceedingly well: by the most bizarre of coincidences his girlfriend, Lourdes, is working as an electronics engineer on a work exchange in the French Space Research Centre, located a bare kilometre from the finish line.

"I knew exactly when I had to attack in order to maintain some kind of difference," Flecha added. "It was like I was coming home to her." For the second consecutive stage, the major favourites were content to let lesser-known riders take the day's honours, all too aware that today's 47km time trial between Gaillac and Cap'Decouverte will open up hostilities in the final battle for the yellow jersey.

Followed by four Pyrenean stages, the race leader Lance Armstrong, just 21sec ahead of his closest pursuer, Alexandre Vinokourov, has been repeating mantra-like ever since the race left the Alps that "this will be the most important time trial for me since I first won the Tour in 1999".

"It's tricky and technical, but not too tricky. I like it," said Armstrong, who has won all bar one of the Tour's long time trials in his five-year reign in yellow. He is receiving moral support from the most unlikely of sources - although given that stage 11 had passed under the shadow of Carcassonne's vast medieval city walls and concluded with Flecha's belligerent gesture, perhaps the sight of his fellow-American and Republican supporter Arnold Schwarzenegger handing Armstrong his fourth yellow jersey of the race on the finishing podium was not totally out of place.

Sporting even more bodyguards than Armstrong's usual cohort of minders at the start in Narbonne - around eight compared to the Texan's mere two - Schwarzenegger's black-suited back-up had previously blasted a three-metre wide obstacle and people-free trail for the American film star to swagger through, his usual toothy grin stuck firmly in place. Presumably Arnie enjoyed himself rather more than on his other recent morale-raising visit for Americans abroad - to Iraq.

Briton's David Millar, while no longer fighting for a place in the overall standings, is highly optimistic about taking the stage itself. "I don't know the course, but I've got the form to take one of the top two places," the Scottish time trial specialist revealed. The other, he is convinced, will go to Armstrong.

STAGE 11 (Narbonne to Toulouse, 153.5km, 95.4 miles): 1 J A Flecha (Sp) 3hr 29min 33sec; 2 B De Groot (Neth) Rabobank +4sec; 3 I Nozal (Sp) ONCE s/t; 4 I Cuesta (Sp) Cofidis +15; 5 C Da Cruz (Fr) +23; 6 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole; 7 N Portal (Fr) AG2R; 8 M Rogers (Aus) Quick Step all s/t; 9 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto +42; 10 B Cooke (Aus) s/t. Selected: 12 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 22 J Ullrich (Ger) Bianchi; 29 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service; 30 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Telekom all s/t.

Overall: 1 Armstrong 49:16:37; 2 Vinokourov +21; 3 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel +1:02; 4 F Mancebo (Sp) +1:37; 5 T Hamilton (US) CSC +1:52; 6 Ullrich +2:10; 7 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo +2:25; 8 R Heras (Sp) US Postal +2:28; 9 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel +3:25; 10 D Menchov (Rus) +3:45. Selected: 15 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step +5:59; 19 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +7:15.

Points (green jersey): 1 Cooke 156; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 148; 3 Zabel 126; 4 O'Grady 122; 5 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 120.

King of the Mountains (polka-dot jersey): 1 Virenque 135pts; 2 J Jaksche (Ger) ONCE 75; 3 Armstrong 74; 4 I Parra (Col) Kelme 71; 5 A Garmendia (Sp) Bianchi 62.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly