- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2001

AINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France Just when Lance Armstrong's rivals thought they had seen it all, he shifted up a gear yesterday to win a Tour de France stage and draw yet closer to a third straight title.
"That was an effort that we've never seen before," he said after winning the individual time trial between Montlucon and this town in central France. "I think that I'm at the highest level of my career."
Armstrong's main rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, remained second overall. But the Texan's advantage grew to 6 minutes, 44 seconds, a huge margin with only two flat stages remaining before the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris tomorrow.
He won last year's race with a 6:02 lead over Ullrich and the year before ended 7:37 ahead of Switzerland's Alex Zuelle.
Barring sickness or accident, Armstrong is certain to become the first American to win three consecutive Tour titles. He won his first title after an extraordinary comeback from testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.
Having won three stages entering yesterday and holding a healthy lead in the standings, Armstrong didn't need to win this leg.
Nevertheless, he recorded a stunning time of 1 hour, 14 minutes, 16 seconds in the 38-mile stage, slashing 1:24 off the day's previous best set by Spain's Igor Gonzalez Galdeano.
"I always feel it's important that the yellow jersey race the final time trial with a 100 percent effort and try and prove that he's the best rider in the race and that he deserves to win the Tour de France," the U.S. Postal Service rider said.
Ullrich trailed by 1:39 and finished the stage in third place behind Armstrong and Gonzalez Galdeano.
After yesterday's time trial, Armstrong was wary of seeming complacent about the prospect of victory.
"It's not over," he said. "I have to be smart, to be safe. I would hate to have a problem [today] or the last day. But if you do have a problem and you crash and hurt something or don't finish, then you lose the race."
Armstrong grimaced as he crossed the finish line on a humid day in which temperatures were 86 degrees.
"I've never felt so good in a time trial," Armstrong said. "The course was perfect. I had great legs."
He set an average speed of 30.554 mph. In last year's time trial between Freiburg, Germany, and Mulhouse, France, he averaged 33.471 mph, a Tour record for a leg over 15.5 miles. That was his only stage-victory of the 2000 Tour.
He won this year's uphill time trial between Grenoble and Chamrousse. He easily claimed the two toughest mountain stages of this year's Tour, winning at L'Alpe d'Huez in the French Alps and at Pla d'Adet in the Pyrenees, where he virtually locked up the 20-leg race.
Spain's Joseba Beloki finished sixth, knocking Kazak rider Andrei Kivilev from third place in the overall standings. That sets up a repeat of the previous year's top-three finish for only the second time. He was 2:21 behind Ullrich in the standings.
Kivilev placed 17th, slipping to fourth place in the standings. He trailed Beloki by 48 seconds.
Today's stage is a 93-mile stretch from Orleans to Evry outside Paris.

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