Battling fierce rain and wind, Lance Armstrong looked at the steep climb and feared it might not be his day.
But then he glanced at his rivals, who were clearly tiring on the Col du Galibier mountain pass, and he summoned a burst of energy.
Armstrong, who has made an astonishing recovery from testicular cancer, won the ninth stage of the Tour de France today and tightened his grip on cycling's showcase race.
"It's important to show you're strong in the mountains," he said. "I'm surprised with the way I felt today."
But, he insists, the race is far from over.
"I can have bad days and my condition can run out," he said. "We have to continue to be aware and smart."
In the race's first mountain stage, the Texan showed he is the man to beat. Not known as a top climber, he persevered on the punishing, rain-slicked slopes of the Alps.
The victory in the 133-mile stage was Armstrong's third of the race, following the prologue and Sunday's time trial. He leads the field by 6 minutes 3 seconds.
His performance is all the more remarkable considering his cancer once spread to his lungs and brain.
"It's unbelievable what he's doing," said American Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour winner. "I think he's even better than before."
The race began in sunshine at the French ski resort of Le Grand Bornand. The riders rapidly descended through lush valleys dotted with chalets and mountain rapids.
But as they approached the first major climb to the Col du Telegraphe, heavy rain began lashing, and the stage became an even greater test of endurance.
There, Armstrong was aided by teammates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston, who nursed him uphill in their slipstream. Content at that point to sit back, he was 12th to arrive at the summit.
Then came the tortuous climb to the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Col du Galibier. On the way up the hairpin turns, Armstrong tired.
"The weather was brutal. It was very cold on top of the Galibier," he said. "I didn't feel super there, but then I realized from the look on the others' faces that they were suffering."
So he plowed on, edging ahead of the pack and arriving fifth at the summit.
The rain soon stopped, and after a rapid, dry descent, Armstrong got stronger. With about six miles to go, he sprinted away from the leading pack of seven riders. Crossing the finish line, he held his arms aloft and looked to the sky.
"I always ride well in these cold and wet conditions," he said. "On a day like this, the competition is reduced by 50 percent due to morale and crashes."
In second place was Switzerland's Alex Zulle, 31 seconds off the pace, followed by Fernando Escartin of Spain, 1:26 behind.
French cyclist Richard Virenque, whom organizers tried to ban because he is being investigated in a drug scandal, came in sixth. But he took the dotted King of the Mountains jersey after picking up points in the intermediate sprints.
Second in the overall standings is Spaniard Abraham Olano. France's Christophe Moreau is third, 7:44 behind.
The Alps claimed eight victims today, all of them abandoning the race. Two of them were the sprint stars of the first week: Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu and Italian Mario Cipollini.
Cipollini, who made history by winning four consecutive stages last week, has never finished the Tour.
CAPTION: Tour de France pack leaves Le Grand Bornand in French Alps to endure grueling 133-mile ninth stage. Sprinters Jaan Kiripuu and Mario Cipollini were among eight riders who did not finish the stage.
CAPTION: In first mountain stage, riders follow Lance Armstrong, whose overall lead is 6 minutes 3 secons.
CAPTION: Overall leader Lance Armstrong, left, not known as a climber, leads Alex Zulle in Tour. Armstrong won rain-soaked Alpine stage for his third victory.