Marco Pantani was on the verge Saturday of becoming the first Italian in 33 years to win the Tour de France, a race that will be remembered more for its drug scandals.
"I'm very happy because all the bad times I have are now ended with the double of the Giro and the Tour de France," said Pantani, who broke a leg in two places in a car accident in 1995.When the Tour ends Sunday, Pantani should become the first winner of the French and Italian races since Miguel Indurain of Spain in 1993.
"But my first victory in the Tour de France was most difficult because of all the doping stories and the police," Pantani said in anticipation of his triumph.
Pantani held a lead of 3 minutes, 21 seconds, after Saturday's 20th stage, virtually assuring him the title.
Defending champion Jan Ullrich won Saturday's 32.3-mile time trial in 1:03:52. But he was nearly six minutes behind entering the stage.
"Pantani is a great champion and he deserves this win a lot," Ullrich said. "But I will return next year to win again."
Barring injury or accident, Pantani will wear the winner's yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees Sunday, becoming the first Italian winner since Felice Gimondi in 1965.
After his auto accident, Pantani came back to take third in the Tour last year and has won six mountain stages.
Next up for him is the world championships at Valkenburg, Netherlands, in October.
American Bobby Julich, second at the start of Saturday's stage, dropped to third, behind Ullrich. He had a 14-second margin over the German starting the day.
Nevertheless, Julich was happy over his finish, 4:08 behind Pan-ta-ni.
"It will be nice to be on the podium with Marco and Jan," Julich said. "I just hope to make it even better next year."
He thinks he can.
"I won't stop until I either win the Tour de France or am too old to ride my bike," Julich said. "I have a few more steps to go."