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Armstrong confident as Tour nears end

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MULHOUSE, France — Lance Armstrong won the individual time trial Friday for his first stage victory in this Tour de France, another key step toward a second straight title in cycling's premier race.

He crossed the finish line at the end of the 19th stage in Mulhouse in eastern France after a 35-mile ride from Freiburg, Germany. He was 25 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, Jan Ullrich of Germany. Christophe Moreau of France was third.

With a lead of 6 minutes, 2 seconds on Ullrich, Armstrong looks virtually unbeatable with just two days to go before the Tour finishes in Paris on Sunday.

The Texan acknowledges what everybody else on the Tour has said for a week: The only way he will not repeat as champion was if he had a disastrous crash between now and Paris.

He said Ullrich was just too far behind. And though he cautioned that "if you crash the race isn't over," Armstrong sounded a lot like a man who had already crossed the Champs-Elysees finish line on top for the second time in as many years.

In an interview with American correspondents before Friday's race, he said he was finding this year twice as sweet. That's partly because he had gotten the better both of Ullrich, the 1997 champion, and Italian star Marco Pantani, the 1998 winner who withdrew earlier this week after failing to beat Armstrong in the final mountain stage.

"It's definitely a vindication. Last year was very special in many ways, but I also knew that Ullrich and Pantani weren't there," Armstrong said. "I couldn't control that. I just had to cycle my race. But they were both critical of my performance — and I thought a lot about that all through the winter and spring, through May and June, and through the mountains."

Still, Armstrong said he could well have ended up chasing Pantani for winner's honors this weekend had the Italian not made such a recklessly aggressive start to that last grueling mountain stage Tuesday.

"He attacked early simply to destroy our team," said Armstrong, the captain of U.S. Postal, the only American-sponsored team in the 20-team field. "He could have been standing on the winner's podium this Sunday if he'd held back."

Armstrong raised the risk of crashing into a spectator, scores of whom accidentally got in the way of riders in Thursday's race from Switzerland to Freiburg.

The 87th Tour de France concludes this weekend with a mostly flat 158-mile race Saturday to the west. Then, following a late-night transfer by Orient Express train to their Paris hotels, the riders complete a largely ceremonial 86-mile dash within the French capital.