For the fifth time in six years, Lance Armstrong was once again invincible in the Tour's final time-trial, again confirming his total superiority in this year's race. Given this was Armstrong's fifth stage win since he outsprinted Ivan Basso on the slopes of Plateau-de- Beille exactly a week before, any other result would have been a huge upset.
But there was little chance, barring an untimely crash, of Armstrong failing to deliver the goods on a 55km route starting and finishing - appropriately enough for a time trial - in Besançon, known in France as the "city of the watchmakers". Rather than take any risks on roads still wet after the morning's thunderstorms, Armstrong opened up a gap of 43 seconds on Jan Ullrich in the first third of a rolling, technical course that swooped through the pastureland of the Doubs before turning back to Besançon.
Thereafter he was largely content to maintain that margin, keeping the pedals turning steadily and flashing across the line 61 seconds ahead of Ullrich.
"I am very happy that it's all over," a visibly relieved Armstrong said afterwards. He had special praise for his back-up staff, saying that "a lot of work in wind tunnels this winter has meant that my head and back are as perfect as you can get aerodynamically". However, he was understandably looking forward to the Champs-Elysées, saying: "It's a special feeling for me and for any rider".
Despite gaining motivation from the thousands of German supporters who had crossed over the nearby Rhine to cheer on the T-Mobile co-leaders, Ullrich and Andreas Klöden, Ullrich was unable to fulfil his dream of finishing on the podium for a sixth time in Paris.
Whilst the 1997 Tour winner was forced to settle for fourth, his team-mate Klöden, 26 seconds slower than Ullrich, easily outstripped the non-specialist Basso - a disappointing sixth on the stage - for third place in Besançon and the runner's-up spot in Paris.
Given that this time-trial was his rival's last realistic chance to unseat Armstrong - now 6min 38sec ahead of Klöden - nothing will now stop the Texan from taking a sixth consecutive win in Paris today.
While it is a largely symbolic ride in the French capital for the general classification riders, the final 163km stage, finishing with the traditional 10 laps on the Champs-Elysées, will still be critical for the green points-jersey competition. Four sprinters - the Australians Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen, German Erik Zabel and Norwegian Thor Hushovd - are all still in contention for the jersey awarded to the most consistent finisher.
McEwen currently leads by 11 points over Hushovd, but the Australian knows only too well what it means to lose the green jersey in Paris.
Last year, the Fdjeux.com sprinter Baden Cooke wrenched it from his grasp on the last sprint of the race - something now beyond all possibility for Armstrong and cycling's greatest treasure, the yellow jersey.Reuse content