NANTES, France – Lance Armstrong all but locked up a record-tying fifth Tour de France (search) title in a drama-packed time trial Saturday by finishing ahead of rival Jan Ullrich, who fell.
The race's final stage Sunday in Paris is traditionally a ceremonial ride in which no one challenges the overall lead. So barring disaster, Armstrong will match Miguel Indurain's record of five consecutive victories in cycling's most prestigious event.
Armstrong smiled broadly and thrust a clenched right fist into the air as he powered to the finish of the rain-soaked time trial covering 30.4 miles. He was handed a large bouquet of yellow flowers, which he jubilantly tossed into the air.
The 31-year-old Texan finished third in the 19th stage, 11 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich (search), the 1997 Tour champion whose rivalry with Armstrong made this year's race one of the most gripping in years.
Ullrich now appears destined to be runner-up in the overall standings for the fifth time.
The German entered Saturday trailing Armstrong by 65 seconds, a deficit that forced him to take risks, and his challenge effectively ended when he slipped while negotiating a turn on the course between the Atlantic coast port of Pornic and the town of Nantes. Ullrich hopped back on his bike but never really regained his rhythm and concentration.
By the end, Armstrong's overall lead had grown to 76 seconds — by far the closest margin since he began his streak of Tour victories in 1999 after overcoming cancer. All his previous victories came with overall margins of at least 6 minutes.
Armstrong raced cautiously Saturday to protect his slight lead.
The last 6 miles "were really dangerous — it was very stormy, and there was a lot of water on the road," he said. "My plan today was to leave gently and get into a rhythm. I had a lead of more than minute. I didn't want to take any risks."
David Millar of Britain won the stage in 54 minutes, 5 seconds. Tyler Hamilton, the American racing with a broken collarbone, was second at 54:14, followed by Armstrong at 54:19.
It's the first time during Armstrong's streak of Tour triumphs that he didn't win the closing time trial, an individual race against the clock.
That may have been fitting, given all the problems he faced over the past three weeks. He had 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 had to veer ride into a field, bouncing across sun-scorched grass, to avoid a crash in front of him.
The turning point came Monday, when Armstrong fell when his bike's handlebars were clipped by a spectator's bag. Armstrong wound up winning that stage in the Pyrenees, and the glint returned to his steely blue eyes.