BORDEAUX, France Saving himself and his overall lead for their great battle to come, Lance Armstrong finished grouped with archrival Jan Ullrich in the Tour de France's pancake-flat 17th stage Thursday, their focus on an expected race-deciding time trial.
The 112-mile stage, a hill-less, anticlimactic route following the dramas that gripped cycling's showcase race in the mountains, was won by Servais Knaven, the first Dutch rider to take a stage on this centenary Tour.
For Armstrong, the day's purpose was to stay safe, out of any crashes. Mission accomplished. His U.S. Postal Service team, racing in a long line at the front of the main pack of riders, guided him toward the finish in Bordeaux, southwestern France's wine capital.
The four-time champion, pursuing Spanish great Miguel Indurain's record of five successive wins, placed 28th, just behind Ullrich. They finished in the same time, 8 minutes and 6 seconds behind Knaven, meaning Armstrong preserved his 67-second lead over the German with just three days of racing to go.
The flat stage from Dax offered few chances for either Armstrong or Ullrich to gain time on each other. They were content to hang back when a group of 10 lesser-known riders, including Knaven, raced off ahead within the first mile.
Armstrong and Ullrich are fixing their attention on Saturday's individual time trial, when they race against the clock and try to clinch the overall title.
Ullrich is hoping for a repeat of his crushing defeat of Armstrong in a time trial last Friday, when he bit a whooping 96 seconds off Armstrong's overall lead, setting the stage for a grippingly close finale to the three-week 2,125-mile slog around France.
''I want to win this Tour. I have never been so close to Armstrong,'' the 29-year-old Ullrich said on his Web site. He was runner-up to Armstrong in 2000 and 2001.
Armstrong, however, was dehydrated that day because of a heat wave that scorched the Tour. He has never lost the last time trial since his first Tour win in 1999 and said he has no intention of doing so now. His mood has been more buoyant since his stage victory Monday in the Pyrenees, when he recovered from a fall and powered past Ullrich to build on his previously razor-thin overall lead.
''Ullrich is a dangerous rider for the time trial,'' Armstrong's Postal teammate, Jose Luis Rubiera, said. ''But I think in normal conditions Lance would not have lost that time during the (last) time trial.''
On Friday, the Tour ventures off on another flat stage from Bordeaux, where Armstrong's aim again is expected to be staying fresh and injury-free for the upcoming clash with Ullrich.
Knaven, of the Italian Quickstep-Davitamon team, was delighted with his first Tour stage win.
''I've always been second, third, fourth,'' he said, tears in his eyes. ''Today I won. Incredible.''
Italian Paolo Bossoni of the Caldirola-So.Di team finished second, ahead of France's Christophe Mengin, of fdjeux.com. Highlighting the flatness of the stage, Knaven finished in just 3 hours, 54 minutes, 23 seconds, racing at a speedy average of 29 mph.
Mengin said he expected Armstrong to triumph in the time trial.
''It will be a beautiful duel,'' he said. ''I don't think that Ullrich can take more than a minute from Armstrong. So, I see Lance Armstrong'' winning.
The 31-year-old Texan's team also is confident he can clinch his record-tying fifth title Saturday. If, however, Armstrong and Ullrich go into Sunday's last stage in Paris equal on time, the Tour could conceivably face the incredible spectacle of them battling to the last on the Champs-Elysees.
But Armstrong hopes it will not come to that.
''The idea is that it will be decided on the time trial,'' said his spokesman Jogi Muller, himself a former rider who raced eight Tours.
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