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Posted by MDugard on Jul 7, 2005 8:07:25 PM

The Tour isn't over, not by a long shot, but Lance Armstrong answered any and all questions about his fitness today. His second place finish in the individual time trial puts him in the catbird seat to win his seventh and final Tour de France. "I was hungry today. I'm excited to be here. I wanted to show the world my commitment to this race, that I didn't come to run a retirement race, but to win this race."Two surprising things occurred during Armstrong's ride. First, he slipped out of his right pedal just after rolling down the starting ramp. An audible gasp went up from the crowd as he slipped it back in, pretty much right in front of where Sheryl Crow was standing. For some, such as my buddy Austin Murphy, it was a shocking reminder of a similar slip in the Dauphine' Libere three weeks ago. "I don't know what happened. I tightened the cleat – the pedal – but it came out. I got it back in faster than in the Dauphine," Armstrong explained afterward. He was standing just before me, surrounded by a crush of media and fans. And when I say a crush, I mean a crush. Bodies pressed against me on all sides (Lance, of course, was protected by a pair of rather large gendarmerie. Armstrong was bathed in sweat, but the white of his eyes were clear instead of having that bloodshot look they get after a long mountain stage. His aerodynamic jersey featured a yellow fabric LiveStrong bracelet sewn into the left sleeve. A fan was banging on the Discovery Team bus, screaming "Hook `em horns, Lance. Hook `em horns." It was all I could do to take notes, but Armstrong was composed and hardly out of breath, probably from having endured dozens of such scenes over his career.The second odd occurrence was passing Jan Ullrich during the time trial. Ullrich started the day one minute ahead of Armstrong. "He's one of the classiest riders of our generation," Armstrong noted. "It wasn't like passing your local training partner, and it wasn't like motor pacing, but it was nice to have someone to pace off of. But remember, he suffered a severe crash yesterday. He wasn't at his best.Armstrong finished two seconds behind American Dave Zabriskie, who now races for CSC, but who raced for Armstrong's U.S. Postal team until this year. Zabriskie's performance stunned race spectators (with the exception of former Armstrong domestique Kevin Livingston, who predicted the victory. It's all the more remarkable because Zabriskie suffered a severe injury during a 2003 training ride. An SUV pulled out in front of him, and the crash broke his leg and arm. In 2004, Zabriskie crashed very hard at the Tour of Redlands, skinning his shoulder very badly and nearly suffering permanent brain damage when he banged his head on the pavement. "The feeling is amazing. Unbelievable. I'm sure tonight it's going to be difficult for me to sleep," the stoic and unassuming Zabriskie marveled.Zabriskie was the 19th rider to roll down the starting ramp. He had to wait almost three hours for Armstrong's ride, sweating through the performances of 170 other riders. "It's becoming a common theme for me to wait around during time trials," he said, noting that his skills have improved since he began working under team manager Bjarne Riis at CSC.   He also won a time trial at the Giro d'Italia in May. "The hard part was that Lance was the last rider. I never thought this would happen to me. Never ever ever."When asked whether donning the yellow jersey made him feel the weight of expectation, Zabriskie just shrugged. "I'm just Dave Zabriskie. I do what I do, and that's all I can do."Like it or not, CSC is now in the position of having to defend the yellow jersey. The talented team features top climbers like Ivan Basso and Bobby Julich, who would have preferred to expend their energy the mountains next week, rather than breaking the wind for a team newcomer.Even though Lance went on and on about how he hoped to win today, there's a lot of speculation that he lost on purpose. Team manager Johann Bruyneel is known to be a cagey tactician, micro-managing the race down to the last possible strategic variation. Although he wants Lance in yellow on July 24th, having him chasing the jersey rather than defending means he'll be able to relax a little until the team trial three days hence. Zabriskie will start tomorrow in yellow, while Lance will wear the green jersey as top sprinter.As to whether Lance intentionally let up in the last hundred meters to avoid: a) the hours-long ordeal of press conference, yellow jersey ceremony, and mandatory drug testing; and, b) defending, Discovery Team media coordinator Dan Ossipow simply grinned. He would not, however, answer the question.I was standing just beyond the finish line when Armstrong and Ullrich whizzed through. This was stupid of me. The previous times I've stood there it's been after mountain stages. The riders were tired then, and stopped almost right away. Today, Lance was an aerodynamic, 30 mph blur, and immediately swallowed by a crowd of cameramen. Ullrich, unfortunately, lagged behind. As I worked my way up to Lance, Ullrich was slowly navigating through the crowd, head down. When it looked like he was about to get knocked over I put my hand on the small of his back to steady him. But I needn't have bothered. To the Tour riders, the bike is an extension of themselves. Ullrich merely flicked the handlebars left, then right, and was out of danger.Lance's warm-up music today? Not sure, but he's been listening to Coldplay recently. A random note: for those who think cycling is a skinny man's sport, take heart. Magnus Backstedt of Team Liquigas-Bianchi weighs over 190 pounds. He finished 57th today.Bob Babbitt from Competitor Magazine was an early supporter of Lance's, all the way from back in his triathlon days. It was Bob who predicted to me that Lance would win the Tour back in 1999, even when the rest of the world thought Lance was washed up after his battle with cancer. The two have grown apart over the years, and until now Bob had never attended the Tour. So it was touching to see Lance pause as he was walking up the steps to his trail and recognize Bob in the crowd and yell out a hello. I'm not saying they're going to be picking out curtains any time soon, but it was a nice gesture, nonetheless.Alright, so it's almost 8:30 here. There's only one road leading back to my hotel, and it's packed with several hundred thousand Frenchmen and their families. If I was smart I would have brought my running shorts and gone for a run up to the local castle for a look around before the sun goes down and the traffic dies. But I did not. All, however, is not lost. They're serving a chilled local Medoc over in   the media room. A glass of that, a slice of the local brioche, and a view of the sun setting off the French coast seems a fine way to pass the time. So until tomorrow...

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