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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
History beckons Armstrong
Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong's ride into yellow at the Tour de France was not supposed to be easy in 2004, but it is ever thus.

He came into cycling's most prestigious and physically demanding race with the dice loaded against his attempt to win a record sixth successive maillot jaune.

Organisers had changed the structure of the race and Armstrong was having to hold the twin threat of age and improving rivals at bay.

But in two sensational stages in the Pyrenees and two in the Alps he came up trumps, stamping his authority over those rivals who scattered in his wake while re-establishing the aura of invincibility he has often carried through the race.

With closest rival Ivan Basso almost four minutes behind and Iban Mayo and Tyler Hamilton having retired, it is unlikely anyone can stop him, despite the protestations.

"Anybody within a few minutes is still a threat," Armstrong said. "A lot of things can still happen, if you have a bad day you can lose 10 minutes. I know that - I have to be smart."

Nobody is as streetwise as Armstrong.

There are potential perils and pitfalls aplenty on the road to Paris, but the 32-year-old's experience, confidence and his US Postal team should ensure he escapes the final six stages unscathed.

Thomas Voeckler's hold on the overall lead was tenuous and eventually cracked on Tuesday, Armstrong happily slipping on the yellow jersey instead.

The young French rider has delighted home crowds with a determined defence of his yellow jersey, but it was only a matter of time before it passed from apprentice to master.

That came on the road to Villard-de-Lans in the Alps - a lead that was further extended on the mountain time trial 24 hours later.

The relentless 15.5km solo ride to Alpe d'Huez was supposed to be the Tour's defining moment and that it became as Armstrong blew away everyone in sight.

After cutting out the time trial in the first week and focusing on a host of predominantly flat stages in the opening fortnight, the theory was the Tour would mature like a fine French wine to a classic last-week finish that tested Armstrong to the full.

But the American popped the cork early in the Pyrenees, startling his opponents into submission with two awe-inspiring performances.

With the sport's more recognised names receding down the rankings the path is clear for Armstrong's crowning in the Champs Elysees on Sunday.

He has peaked once again when it matters most and learnt from the trials and tribulations of last year when he struggled.

As a result, Armstrong and US Postal have prepared for the race fastidiously and have ridden it to perfection.

Armstrong is always aided and abetted by trusty lieutenants, be it George Hincapie on the flat or Jose Azevado on the gruelling hors category climbs, and his success would be impossible without the help of his eight team-mates.

And when he is left to his own devices on the steepest climbs at the end of a day, the team leader has shown he has the measure of those around him.

His confidence will only grow now he is in yellow, as it will if he scans the general classification which reveals there is no-one with his all-round ability to mount a serious threat.

Basso and Andreas Kloden will have their day, but neither can boast or beat Armstrong's time-trialling pedigree, particularly on stage 19 - the 55km circuit around Besancon.

The only thing barring his route is the fickle finger of fate in the form of an accident, the great imponderable.

But even then the Gods seem to be smiling on Armstrong.

On his way to victory in Plateau de Beille he punctured coming down the penultimate climb, with plenty of time to recover before the final ascent, whereas Chrisophe Moreau got a flat on the final climb.

"The harder you practice the luckier you get"; so goes the saying. Armstrong and his team are proof of that.

Lance Armstrong
25 Jun 04  |  Riders and Teams

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