Those who said this Tour de France would bare the human side of Lance Armstrong like never before turned out to be right.
Just not in the way most imagined.
He crashed twice, nearly fell off his bike a third time and was badly beaten in a handful of stages where defeat once seemed unthinkable. He spilled blood on the road like the other riders, candidly shared his moments of self-doubt and crossed the finish line several times draped over his handlebars like a man hanging on for life instead of an unbreakable machine.
But vulnerability wasn't the only quality not even the essential one that revealed Armstrong at his most human.
It was his desire, his guts and, above all, a willingness to pick himself up and get back into what was his toughest fight since battling a deadly form of testicular cancer seven years ago.
The 19th and next-to-last stage of the Tour ended Saturday in Nantes beneath a mournful sky and steady rain, some 240 miles from Paris. It ended with Armstrong still wearing the leader's yellow jersey ''le maillot jaune'' after finishing third in the time trial with a comfortable lead of 1 minute, 16 seconds over Jan Ullrich of Germany, his closest pursuer, and virtually assured of another Tour title.
''This was absolutely ... the most difficult,'' Armstrong said afterward. ''This close one feels different and feels better ... than all of the others.''
Barring a crash or some other disaster, Armstrong will roll into Paris and past the Arc de Triomphe at about 3 p.m. local time, then up and down the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elysees inside the protective cocoon of the U.S. Postal Service team to become only the second man to win the world's greatest bicycle race five times in a row.
The final drama began in earnest Saturday with Ullrich, the 1997 winner and the man Armstrong feared from the start, sipping from a water bottle, licking his lips and crossing himself before launching his bike into the mist.
Three minutes later, Armstrong followed. The afternoon was still so gray that as spectators lining the road snapped pictures, the lack of light triggered the automatic flashes on their cameras.
What none of them knew at the moment was whether they were photographing a man about to broken, or one on his way to joining Spanish star Miguel Indurain as the only racers to string all five of their Tour wins together.
Less than an hour later, they had their answer.
Armstrong had been thumped so soundly by Ullrich in last week's time trial in Stage 12, across rolling vineyards that some doubted he would recover. The margin of defeat was a staggering 1:36, which narrowed the Texan's lead to 34 seconds. The next day, Ullrich attacked again in the Pyrenees and narrowed the gap to 15 seconds.
''It felt,'' Armstrong would say, ''like I was riding backwards.''
But he contested Saturday's time trial in a decidedly different gear. At the start, Armstrong lowered the zipper on his jersey, looked down briefly, closed his eyes and sped off. Smooth from the outset, he picked up his pace and trailed the German by only 2 seconds at the three-quarter mark of the 30.4-mile stage. Soon after, Ullrich skidded across the road trying to slice precious feet off a corner and crashed into a protective barrier.
''The last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) were really dangerous, it was very stormy and there was a lot of water on the road,'' Armstrong said in French. ''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.''
One year ago, Armstrong pedaled onto the Champs-Elysees with a lead of more than 7 minutes, his dominance unchallenged. But like Michael Jordan at the end of his first comeback, signs of Armstrong's vulnerability were scattered across the start line of this one.
Armstrong turns 32 in September, and although racers have won the Tour at that age and beyond, all of the five-time winners logged their final victory before that telling birthday.
In 1995, he had a front seat for Indurain's final victory, watching the Spaniard pull effortlessly away on the stage to Liege. ''I was right on his wheel,'' Armstrong recalled. ''But when he accelerated, there was nothing I could do. I just watched him ride away.''
He wasn't that close the following year, when Indurain, overweight and unprepared for a freak July snowstorm in the mountains, was humiliated by Bjarne Riis of Denmark on the grueling mountain stage that ended in the Spaniard's hometown of Pamplona. Indurain retired soon afterward.
That lesson wasn't lost on the Texan. The day when he had to face down his own mortality came Monday in Stage 15.
Armstrong bumped a spectator's bag early on a climb and crashed. Sitting there stunned, he told himself, ''Lance, if you want to win the Tour, attack.''
He remounted and went off in chase of the pack. Up ahead, Tyler Hamilton, an American who once was his teammate and now a rival, waved his arms and yelled at the main pack to slow and observe the code of honor that says nobody takes advantage of a fallen leader.
Armstrong did the same two years ago, when Ullrich crashed. But once Armstrong returned to the peloton, their debt now evened, he raced away with breathtaking swiftness. On the way up the mountain, a slope so steep that the final two peaks aren't even rated for difficulty, he caught the last survivor of an early breakaway.
As Armstrong pulled alongside Sylvain Chavanel, he patted him on the back as the Frenchman made way. Then, and only then, did Armstrong put the hammer down. By the end of the stage, his lead was restored to 1:07.
The finish line that day was shrouded in fog, the most fitting end of all. If only for a day, all those rivals who had seen the all-too-human side of Armstrong for the better part of two weeks now looked up to see a lone rider disappearing into the ethereal mist.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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