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Tour de France: Armstrong achieves stage win, nears title

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MULHOUSE, France — Riding at a pace rarely seen in cycling, Lance Armstrong surged to a stage victory for the first time in this year's race as he neared a second straight triumph in the Tour de France.

He averaged 33.5 mph on Friday during the 36-mile individual time trial from Freiburg, Germany, to this French border town.

It was the fastest pace at that distance in the 87-year history of cycling's most prestigious event. Only Greg LeMond, America's first Tour champion, had done better — 33.8 mph during the 1989 time trial but on a course less than half Friday's length.

Armstrong, who overcame cancer to win last year's race, holds an overall lead of 6 minutes, 2 seconds, and looks virtually unbeatable with just two days before the finish in Paris on Sunday.

The 28-year-old Texan got a big hug from his wife, Kristin, at the finish in Mulhouse. Armstrong said it was the victory itself, rather than any eye-grabbing statistics, that mattered.

"I was a little bit surprised that I won," said Armstrong, who though building a dominant lead throughout the three-week competition had yet to take the top spot in any of the previous 18 stages. "I had an empty feeling up until now. And now it's complete."

Armstrong overcame a roadside crowd that, particularly on the German side of the border, was rooting heavily for Armstrong's nearest challenger, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich of Deutsche Telekom. The German finished second in the stage, 25 seconds behind Armstrong's time of 1 hour, 5 minutes and 1 second.

"You could really feel that it was an Ullrich crowd, with all the German flags and his name written all over the road," said Armstrong, who feared that a deranged fan might try to leap into the road and knock him down.

"It only takes one crazy guy to do something devastating," said Armstrong, who credited the German fans with "real class" for showing him respect even though he was riding directly behind Ullrich.

"I didn't really expect to beat Ullrich in his home," Armstrong said. "I've never seen so many people at a time trial."

Before the race, Armstrong had confided that he would push for victory only if he stayed close to Ullrich at the first time measurement a third of the way into the race.

As he rolled down the starter's ramp, Armstrong — wearing a skinsuit of yellow denoting the overall tour leader — signaled his determination, pounding his pedals from a standing position, a far more tiring method than the methodical seated method preferred by Ullrich.

After 12 miles, the earpiece in Armstrong's helmet reported surprisingly good news. Far from being tied or behind, he was already five seconds ahead of Ullrich.

And the gap grew once Ullrich and Armstrong, the final two of 129 riders still in the field, crossed the border into France. By the finish, Armstrong was again standing on his pedals, working furiously for each agonizing split-second.

But he insisted the breakneck pace was strictly a sidelight.

With just two stages to go before his almost certain crowning, Armstrong can afford to celebrate just a little.

He was asked if he would have some champagne Friday night, hours before Saturday's race into the Champagne region. Armstrong acknowledged it was "traditional" on the Tour to do so, but he'd probably watch others open the bottle.

"I'm not a big champagne guy," said Armstrong, who lives part of the year in the southern French city of Nice. "I'd rather drink beer or wine."