For once, Lance Armstrong was on a bike going nowhere. Granted, it was a stationary bike.
As Armstrong warmed up outside the U.S. Postal Service team van for Friday's individual time trial--the last stage with any lingering suspense in this Tour de France--his wife, Kristin, dropped by with their 21-month-old son, Luke. As she boosted the wriggling toddler up to Armstrong's right shoulder, the cyclist dropped his game face and smiled.
He turned his head and kissed his son. Then he kissed the rest of the field goodbye.
Armstrong put his already obvious dominance over the Tour field into boldface capital letters Friday. His victory in the 18th stage, a 37.82-mile rocket ride along country lanes in the fertile Berry region, extended his overall lead over Germany's Jan Ullrich to 6 minutes 44 seconds with two days left.
Armstrong completed the rolling course in 1 hour 14 minutes 16 seconds, averaging 30.5 mph.
Ullrich finished third Friday, 1:39 behind. Moments after the stage ended, French TV showed a split-screen replay of Armstrong and Ullrich pedaling toward the finish line.
Their stances were characteristic. Armstrong stood and cranked at high cadence, the force of his strokes making his bike rock from side to side; Ullrich, body low and head down, moved ahead with a consistent rhythm. The comparison epitomized the contrast that has been apparent since the Tour began.
The men raced in steamy conditions, with high humidity and temperatures hovering around 90. Armstrong was still mopping his brow more than an hour after dismounting but said he never had felt better in a time trial.
"Last year I was frustrated at this point in the Tour," said Armstrong, who won his fourth stage to equal his 1999 total. His only stage win last year came in the traditional Friday time trial even though he had led the race from the halfway point on. "I always feel it's important for the maillot jaune [yellow jersey] to race the final time trial with his best effort and ultimately prove he deserves to win the Tour.
"I have to be smart and safe and stay around the team [this weekend]. It's respectful to recognize that the race isn't over yet. I'm in a great state of mind."
Spanish star and ONCE team leader Joseba Beloki leapfrogged into third place overall with a sixth-place finish Friday, 2:32 behind Armstrong, and has a 48-second advantage in the race over the man he displaced, Andrei Kivilev of Kazakhstan.
If the standings hold, Armstrong, Ullrich and Beloki will finish in the same order they did last year, a rare trifecta that has occurred only once before in Tour history: 1978-79. It never has happened in non-consecutive years.
"I had a super race," Ullrich said of Friday's sweat-a-thon. "I've never fought this hard."
U.S. cyclist Bobby Julich of the Credit Agricole team placed seventh in the time trial and is in position for his highest Tour finish since he came in third in 1998. Julich is 18th overall, 48:04 behind Armstrong.
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The leaders in the Tour de France after Friday's 18th stage (with cumulative time for leader and time deficit for others):
1. Lance Armstrong (U.S.), 79 hours 7 minutes 33 seconds.
2. Jan Ullrich (Germany), 6:44.
3. Joseba Beloki (Spain), 9:05.
4. Andrei Kivilev (Kazakhstan), 9:53.
5. Igor G. Galdeano (Spain), 13:28.
6. Francois Simon (France), 17:22.
Today's 19th stage: 92.84 miles from Orleans to Evry.
PLACE IN HISTORY
If he holds his lead, Lance Armstrong will join a select group of riders who have won three or more consecutive Tours de France:
5--Miguel Indurain, Spain, 1991-95
4--Jacques Anquetil, France, 1961-64
4--Eddy Merckx, Belgium, 1969-72
3--Louison Bobet, France, 1953-55
Note: Armstrong is among a group of eight cyclists who have won back-to-back races, including France's Bernard Hinault, who did it twice.
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Race at a Glance
A look at Friday's 18th stage:
* Stage: A 37.82-mile individual time trial from Montlucon to Saint-Amand-Montrond in central France.
* Winner: Two-time defending champion Lance Armstrong, in 1 hour 14 minutes 16 seconds. He kept the leader's yellow jersey.
* How others fared: Jan Ullrich of Germany was third, 1:39 behind Armstrong. Joseba Beloki of Spain was sixth and rose to third place in the overall standings behind Armstrong and Ullrich.
* Quote of the day: "I'm in a great state of mind. This is a good time to be Lance Armstrong."--Armstrong, on his form as he drew close to claiming his third consecutive Tour de France title.
* Next stage: Today's stage is 92.84 miles from Orleans to Evry, outside Paris.