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Armstrong set to claim fifth straight Tour title

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NANTES, France — Lance Armstrong climbed the podium to receive a bouquet of flowers and the fresh yellow jersey signifying his overall lead in the Tour de France with just one stage left.

Right then, five-time race champion Bernard Hinault leaned over and delivered the accolade Armstrong's been after since he began cycling: "Welcome to the club," the Frenchman said.

It truly is an exclusive group — just four men have won the Tour five times until now — and Armstrong is set to join.

Staying steady on rain-slicked roads while his rival fell during a dramatic time trial Saturday, the 31-year-old Texan virtually assured himself of a record-tying fifth straight title and a place in cycling's pantheon.

Never quite satisfied, Armstrong already vowed that he'll be back next year to chase an unprecedented sixth win in the sport's most prestigious race.

He finished 11 seconds ahead of challenger Jan Ullrich in Saturday's 19th stage, stretching his lead in the overall standings to 1 minute, 16 seconds — enough to assure victory, though by what will be his slimmest margin.

Armstrong, who came back from cancer to win the 1999 Tour, called this "absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons: physically not super, tactically some mistakes made."

"But this close one feels different and feels better than some of the others — or all of the others. It's very satisfying," he said.

The race's final stage Sunday in Paris is traditionally a ceremonial ride where no one challenges the overall leader.

So barring disaster, Armstrong will match Hinault, Miguel Indurain of Spain, Jacques Anquetil of France, and Eddy Merckx of Belgium as riders who have won five Tours since the race began in 1903. Only Indurain won them all in a row.

Armstrong smiled broadly and thrust a clenched right fist into the air as he powered to the finish of Saturday's 30.4-mile ride. The gesture, he said, was because of "relief to have made it through a time trial that was very dangerous at the end and relief to have gotten that much closer to winning the Tour de France."

Any chance Ullrich had of catching him disappeared when the German tumbled to the pavement in the rain.

About 20 miles into Saturday's individual race against the clock, Ullrich had a 2-second edge on Armstrong. Shortly after that, though, Ullrich's wheels slid out from under him as he went around a traffic circle. He slid across the road, ending up in soft red-and-white safety cushions.

He hopped back on but almost missed another turn just moments later because he was looking down at his bike, checking for damage.

Ullrich attributed his crash to bad road conditions.

"I didn't go into the curve fast. There must have been a little oil on the road," he told German state TV.

Armstrong, told over his radio that Ullrich had fallen, slowed to make sure he didn't slip, too. The American finished third, one place ahead of Ullrich, who came back from two knee operations and a 2002 ban for using amphetamines.

The day capped the most gripping Tour in years, with each rider pushing the other. Ullrich, the 1997 champion, now will be the runner-up for the fifth time — three behind Armstrong.

David Millar of Britain won Saturday's stage in 54 minutes, 5 seconds, his average speed of 33.702 mph the second-fastest in Tour history. Tyler Hamilton, the American racing with a broken collarbone, was second in 54:14, followed Armstrong in 54:19.

It's the first time during his streak of Tour triumphs that Armstrong didn't win the closing time trial. But perhaps that's fitting, given all the problems he faced the past three weeks.

On the postrace podium Saturday, Armstrong jubilantly tossed away that large bouquet of flowers — celebrating after all those days of tension, when it seemed his dream of title No. 5 might evaporate.

He had a stomach flu before the July 5 start. He was bruised in a crash on the second day, then failed to shine in the Alps, where he usually dominates. He even needed to ride into a field, bouncing across sun-scorched grass, to avoid a crash in front of him.

"This Tour took a lot out of me," said Armstrong, who won each of the past four years by at least 6 minutes.

"This year was not acceptable," he said. "I don't plan on being this vulnerable next year, I really don't. I think that it was good for me to have a rough year. To be honest, to win by 5 or 6 minutes gets old, and you start to take certain things for granted . . .

"I won't make the same mistake again."

The turning point came Monday, when Armstrong fell off his bicycle after the handlebars were clipped by a spectator's bag. Armstrong wound up recovering to win that stage in the Pyrenees, and the glint returned to his steely blue eyes.

Armstrong hailed Ullrich as a great rival.

"For the first time since I've raced him, he kept us up at night," he said. "Nobody makes me more motivated than Jan Ullrich. I don't know why. But in my opinion, he's a big champion."