BORDEAUX, France - If the dice tumble a certain way in the 100th anniversary Tour de France, it could feature a once-a-century finish - the odd and virtually unprecedented specter of two great competitors going for the purse on the Champs-Elysees.
If you're a cycling traditionalist, it's a doomsday scenario. If you're a fan of the spontaneous and uncharted, it couldn't be better. In either case, most observers believe the race will be decided in tomorrow's time trial, making Sunday's 20th and final stage its usual largely ceremonial self.
Few Tour leaders ever have had as slim a margin going into the final weekend as Lance Armstrong's current 1-minute, 7-second gap over Germany's Jan Ullrich. That raises the question of whether the two would choose to race on the final day, which is generally non-competitive for the first and second-place riders.
"It's too much speculation right now," said Armstrong's longtime personal coach, Chris Carmichael. "But if it's close enough so that time bonuses could decide it, I would think there would be no reason for them not to try. If there's a five-second gap, I can't imagine they wouldn't go for it.
"[Sprinting] is not something they're used to doing, but it's not completely foreign to them either. There are 20 stages where you can either win or lose the yellow jersey, and it's not over until they cross the line on the Champs Elysees."
Only five editions of the race have been decided by a minute or less, the most famous being Greg LeMond's 1989 victory over Laurent Fignon.
LeMond, who was 50 seconds behind Fignon going into the last day, beat him by eight seconds. But the final stage that year was an individual time trial.
This year's Stage 20, like most in recent history, features a flat course through the Paris suburbs into the heart of the French capital.
There are two "intermediate sprints" in Sunday's stage - points at which riders can pick up a maximum of six seconds in bonus time. Riders who finish 1-2-3 in the stage get 20, 12 and 8 seconds, respectively.
"If the green jersey is close, those guys are going to go for it, and you're not going to see Lance or Ullrich beat those guys," said Montana native Levi Leipheimer, who is home in Spain, recovering from the fractured hip he suffered in Stage 1.
Teams supporting those riders and riders hoping for a stage victory would work for them fiercely, and it is nearly impossible for any one team to get ahead of the pack on flat terrain.
"[Still, if Armstrong and Ullrich] still have a chance to win, they'll go for it for sure," said Outdoor Life Network commentator Frankie Andreu.
"I guess you'd have to throw tradition out the window. You don't have a choice, you'd have to try. But it's moot. A sprinter's going to win, and the teams are going to control it."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
(112.4-mile leg from Dax, France) 1. Servais Knaven, Netherlands, Quick Step-Davitamon, 3 hours, 54 minutes, 23 seconds.
2. Paolo Bossoni, Italy, Caldirola-So.Di, 17 seconds behind.
3. Christophe Mengin, France, fdjeux.com, same time.
4. Leon Van Bon, Netherlands, Lotto-Domo, same time.
5. Salvatore Commesso, Italy, Saeco-Macchine Per Caffe, same time.
6. Vicente Garcia Acosta, Spain, ibanesto.com, same time.
7. Peter Luttenberger, Austria, Team CSC, same time
8. Mederic Clain, France, Cofidis-La Credit Par Telephone, same time.
9. Bram De Groot, Netherlands, Rabobank, same time.
10. Ivan Parra, Colombia, Kelme-Costa Blanca, 1 minute, 55 seconds behind.
11. Robbie McEwen, Australia, Lotto-Domo, 8:06 behind.
12. Erik Zabel, Germany, Team Telekom, same time.
13. Baden Cooke, Australia, fdjeux.com, same time.
14. Thor Hushovd, Norway, Credit Agricole, same time.
15. Fabrizio Guidi, Italy, Bianchi, same time.
37. Iban Mayo, Spain, Euskaltel-Euskadi, same time.
27. Jan Ullrich, Germany, Bianchi, same time.
28. Lance Armstrong, United States, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
30. Ivan Basso, Italy, Fassa Bortolo, same time.
36. Christophe Moreau, France, Credit Agricole, same time.
40. Georg Totschnig, Austria, Gerolsteiner, same time.
41. Alexandre Vinokourov, Kazakhstan, Team Telekom, same time.
46. Tyler Hamilton, United States, Team CSC, same time.
48. Haimar Zubeldia, Spain, Euskaltel-Euskadi, same time.
53. Manuel Beltran, Spain, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
55. Francisco Mancebo, Spain, ibanesto.com, same time.
57. Carlos Sastre, Spain, Team CSC, same time.
66. Richard Virenque, France, Quick Step-Davitamon, same time.
67. Floyd Landis, United States, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
69. George Hincapie, United States, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
82. Pavel Padrnos, Czech Republic, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
87. Vjatceslav Ekimov, Russia, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
90. Denis Menchov, Russia, ibanesto.com, same time.
95. Jose Luis Rubiera, Spain, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
98. Victor Hugo Pena, Colombia, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
129. Roberto Heras, Spain, U.S. Postal Service, same time.
1. Lance Armstrong, 74 hours, 40 minutes, 28 seconds.
2. Jan Ullrich, 1 minute, 7 seconds behind.
3. Alexandre Vinokourov, 2:45 behind.
4. Haimar Zubeldia, 5:16.
5. Iban Mayo, 5:25.
6. Tyler Hamilton, 6:35.
7. Ivan Basso, 8:08.
8. Christophe Moreau, 11:12.
9. Francisco Mancebo, 16:05.
10. Carlos Sastre, 16:12.
11. Denis Menchov, 17:09.
12. Georg Totschnig, 18:52.
13. Peter Luttenberger, 19:03.
14. Manuel Beltran, 19:34.
15. Richard Virenque, 22:00.
19. Jose Luis Rubiera, 27:29.
32. Roberto Heras, 1 hour, 8 minutes, 13 seconds behind.
48. George Hincapie, 1:43:15.
75. Floyd Landis, 2:20:04.
77. Viatcheslav Ekimov, 2:21:09.
89. Victor Hugo , 2:40:01.
102. Pavel Padrnos, 3:02:33.