PAU, France - The high mountains safely behind him, the finishing straight almost in sight, just one thing is missing as Lance Armstrong closes in on a seventh straight and last Tour de France title: a daily stage win of his own.
Even Armstrong, who doesn’t like to tempt fate by claiming a win in advance, acknowledges that “the odds are good” that he’ll have the winner’s yellow jersey — the famed maillot jaune — on his back when he retires from cycling at the end of the race.
Completing the last of three days in the Pyrenees on Tuesday left just a mostly flat stage, two medium mountain stages and the time trial for Armstrong to negotiate before the final victorious pedal up Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
Armstrong’s main rivals, sensing that their chances of catching the American are slipping away, tried testing him again on two rigorous climbs during Tuesday’s 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau.
But he brushed off the challenges, easily matching their uphill accelerations to defend his comfortable lead. He finished with his main rivals in a group behind stage winner Oscar Pereiro of Spain — and announced he was feeling better than ever.
“I don’t have a real explanation but I felt amazing on the bike, totally confident,” Armstrong said. “The big, big days and the big difficulties are done. Now we have to stay safe, stay conservative and look to the final time trial and try and close it out.”
Pereiro completed Tuesday’s 112.2-mile trek in 4 hours, 38 minutes, 40 seconds for his and his Swiss Phonak team’s first win at the Tour. Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and other top riders were 3:24 back.
Armstrong’s lead over Basso, who is looking to improve on his third-place finish last year, remains at 2:46. Mickael Rasmussen is third, 3:09 behind the six-time champion.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who is fourth overall, trails Armstrong by 5:58.
Armstrong, who was a brash young racer when he started but over time has come to respect the 102-year-old Tour’s traditions, said he wants to honor the yellow jersey by riding all-out in the time trial on Saturday — a discipline in which he excels.
“I have to stay with my boys, stay out of trouble, then get to the final time trial, ride as hard as I can, represent the yellow jersey, show that he deserves to be the champ, then ride into Paris, a few laps, and that’s it,” he said.
In his winning Tours from 1999-2004, Armstrong won 19 individual stages, 10 of them time trials. In all but 2003, his shakiest victory, Armstrong’s winning margins in Paris have exceeded 6 minutes. In 2003, he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
“I’m feeling better and better every day,” he said.
Pereiro’s win made up for his disappointment in the 15th stage, when he placed second, beaten in a finishing sprint by Armstrong’s Discovery Channel teammate, George Hincapie.
But some rivals already are pinning their hopes on next year — when Armstrong will not be competing.
“When Lance Armstrong, the sheriff, is no longer here, then we can think about doing something more,” said Francisco Mancebo, a Spaniard who is fifth overall.
“The amount of support is great this year,” he said. “If there’s 1 in 100 that are negative, don’t dwell on that, think of the 99 that are positive, and remember this Tour, remember this last week, remember these last days.
“It will never be like this again for me,” he added. “I will never be in yellow again, and that’s a special thing, so I need to cherish those moments.”
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