TOULOUSE, France Lance Armstrong's struggle to dominate a surprisingly difficult Tour de France could hinge on beating the clock in Friday's individual time trial a decisive race on undulating terrain.
The four-time champion holds the overall lead in this year's Tour, but only by 21 seconds. Unlike past years, his top rivals feel victory is within their grasp.
''The standings are very close,'' Armstrong, soaked in sweat, conceded to reporters Thursday.
None of the Tour's top contenders, including American Tyler Hamilton, who is competing with a broken right collarbone, bothered to mount a challenge Thursday on one of the Tour's least punishing stages.
Instead, they rode alongside Armstrong on the flatlands from Narbonne to Toulouse, always staying within the main pack and finishing in the same time.
Alexander Vinokourov of Kazhakstan, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, Spanish rider Francisco Mancebo, Iban Mayo of Spain, and Hamilton chose to conserve their forces, hoping to chip away at Armstrong's lead during Friday's vital individual time trial.
''The time trial is totally going to dictate how the rest of the Tour is raced,'' said Frankie Andreu, a former U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong who follows the Tour closely.
The 29-mile run across the sun-drenched hills from Gaillac to Cap'Decouverte is raced against the clock and riders leave several minutes apart.
Armstrong has acknowledged the stage the Tour's 12th poses the toughest challenge since he first won the Tour in 1999. But the Texan has scouted the course numerous times and knows it well.
''I've been doing extra work on the time trial bike in training,'' said Armstrong, who is seeking a record-tying fifth title.
One factor that could play against him is the wind.
''We'll have to see at the end because the wind direction might change,'' he said.
Armstrong isn't alone in setting time aside to prepare.
''It's obviously a huge thing,'' said Australia's Baden Cooke, who won an earlier stage and currently holds the green jersey for best sprinter. ''If people go slow, they can lose three or four minutes.''
Vinokourov said he felt in top shape and was pleased with his performance so far.
''It gives my morale a boost ahead the race against the clock and the Pyrenees,'' he said.
If Armstrong doesn't make a strong showing Friday, the race's front-runners could give him a tough time during the four stages in the mighty Pyrenees mountains that start Saturday.
''He will have to respond and go with these guys when they attack on the climbs, that's what's going to be the difference,'' Andreu said.
Thursday's 11th stage gave lesser-known riders a chance to grab the spotlight. Armstrong finished 42 seconds behind the winner, Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha, competing in his first Tour. Dutch cyclist Bram De Groot finished second, and Spanish rider Isidro Nozal was third.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is following part of the Tour, returned the leader's yellow jersey to Armstrong when he ascended the podium. Earlier in the day, the two posed for pictures outside the Postal team's bus.
Before Thursday's stage, Hamilton's entourage angrily denied speculation by fans and the French media that his collarbone injury, sustained in a July 6 crash on the Tour, was not as bad as team doctors said.
In front of the Team CSC bus, Bjarne Riis, the team's director and a Tour winner in 1996, held a copy of the medical X-ray showing Hamilton's injuries to photographers.
''If they look at the X-rays and they can't see the fracture, then I can refer them to an eye specialist,'' Hamilton said.
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