Cycling: Vinokourov's surprise surge leaves sprinters trailing in his wake

Vinokourov's objective was twofold - to take a second stage win in the 2005 Tour and to gain a time bonus, moving up one place overall, from sixth to fifth. At 1,500 metres from the line, he made his audacious charge, counter-attacking behind the Australian Bradley McGee and escaping the clutches of a peloton moving at nearly 60kph (37mph).

Usually attempts like this to foil the fast men fail miserably, but Vinokourov's coup de panache, as he described it afterwards, had thrown the bunch into confusion, and the T-Mobile professional was able to raise his arms in victory as he crossed the line.

"I gave it everything I could; I knew I could get past McGee and shouldn't look back," Vinokourov said. He added that he had been motivated by thoughts of his friend Andrei Kivilev, the rider killed in 2003 in a race accident and who lived close to St Etienne, the city which hosted Saturday's final time trial.

The ferociously hilly 55.5-kilometre race against the clock was won, rather more predictably, by Lance Armstrong, although it did see major shake-ups in the fight to stand beside him in Paris.

Armstrong's most persistent rival, Jan Ullrich, moved up to third place behind the American after the Dane Mickael Rasmussen, the German's only obstacle to a seventh final podium in Paris, suffered just about all possible bad luckwithout actually abandoning.

After crashing in the fourth kilometre, Rasmussen insisted on having a back-wheel change, then changed his entire bike twice, and as a final touch, skidded into a ditch.

In 77th position at the finish line on the stage, Rasmussen slid to seventh overall and had to be satisfied with winning the King of the Mountains competition.

Armstrong himself had a narrow squeak, when, Tour patron to the last, he attempted to chase down the Frenchman Sandy Casar yesterday.

Casar's attack broke with Tour protocol - traditionally the race leader's team leads on to the Champs Elysées - but Armstrong's pursuit could have had more serious consequences.

His American team-mate, George Hincapie, skidded out of control in the rain and the Texan was forced to put one foot to the ground to avoid crashing.

Armstrong had a face like thunder, but just like the weather, his mood brightened considerably as the finish approached. After donning his last yellow jersey he ended his role as race leader by describing the Italian Ivan Basso, second, and Ullrich in third as "the dream final podium." "Perhaps one of you will be in my place next year," he concluded. "All I know is that I'm out of here."

Shortly afterwards, he was.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'

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