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Tour de Lance

Texan looks to three-peat today on historic Champs-Elysses

PARIS — It started with a defiant look and ended with a handshake.

Lance Armstrong's almost certain victory in the Tour de France took just five mountain stages. And by the time he was through — and a third straight title seemed assured — Armstrong's toughest rival extended his hand, acknowledging defeat with a whole week to go.

"I tried everything to seek out the slightest weakness, but Lance didn't have any," Jan Ullrich of Germany said. "That's why I shook his hand at Luz-Ardiden. For me, the match was over."

On Sunday, along the Champs-Elysees, that will surely be the case. And the rider whose body was ravaged by cancer five years ago will be a champion again.

Armstrong moved a step closer to victory Saturday when he finished with the main pack in 30th place, trailing stage winner Erik Zabel of Germany.

Armstrong led Ullrich by 6 minutes, 44 seconds, in the standings. He finished this 93-mile run from Orleans in the same time as Zabel — 3:12:27.

The contest opened for real in the Alps, where Armstrong arrived trailing the overall leader by 22 places.

The big deficit sprang from an earlier stage between Colmar and Pontarlier in which the favorites, including Armstrong, allowed a group of lesser-known riders to break from the main pack and build a lead of nearly 36 minutes.

As Armstrong headed into the mountains halfway through the Tour, fans anxiously looked for a sign that he had the race under control. Their worst fears seemed to come true when the two-time champion grimaced in apparent agony and trailed Ullrich all the way from Aix-les-Bains to the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez.

With one of the hardest climbs in cycling just ahead, the Texan's chances of finishing the stage, let alone winning the title, looked dim to many.

That's when Armstrong began moving up through the pack. He continued until he reached the front, just ahead of Ullrich.

He looked back, staring long and hard into the German's white-framed sunglasses, then surged ahead. He sprinted up the 21 hairpin bends to the summit, claiming his first stage victory and beating his main rival by a whopping 1:59.

"I assumed that if I had to bluff, then they would ride even harder," Armstrong said after the race, explaining his sudden transformation from ailing rider to stage-winner.

"In cycling, everybody is watching. I know that they (the team directors ) are all sitting back there in the cars watching TV, and I can hear when a motorcycle comes up with a TV camera on it. Sometimes you have to play that game a little bit."

As for "the look," he denied it was intended to needle Ullrich.

"It was not an arrogant thing," he said. "It was simply a check of his face and the other faces."

Ullrich's exhausted demeanor was again on display the next day in a grueling uphill time trial between Grenoble and Chamrousse, an Alpine ski station. He was in top form, but then Armstrong slashed a minute off his rival's stunning time.

"Lance Armstrong once said that Jan Ullrich is the greatest talent in cycling," the Team Telekom rider said. "This doesn't seem to be the case."

Despite the two stage wins and a comfortable third-place finish in the first leg of the Pyrenees, 23 seconds ahead of Ullrich, the leader's yellow jersey continued to elude Armstrong.

He took it in the next stage, a gut-wrenching stretch from Foix to Pla d'Adet that featured six exceptionally difficult mountain passes.

Following a by-now familiar pattern, he let Ullrich lead for most of the race before powering ahead in the last climb.

He raised both hands in the air as he crossed the finish line, dedicating the win to former Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli. Riders had just passed a memorial marking the spot where the Italian crashed fatally in the 1995 Tour.

"When we passed (the memorial) today, I decided that I was going to win," Armstrong said.

In so doing, he moved into the overall lead, where he remained for the rest of the Tour.

Whatever hope Ullrich had quickly fizzled in the final mountain stage between Tarbes and Luz-Ardiden. He finished just ahead of Armstrong, but made only a tiny dent on his rival's lead.

Crossing the finish line, the 1997 champion extended his hand to Armstrong. And now he must settle for a runner-up finish for the second straight year.

"This year, he is stronger than ever," Ullrich said.