Remember all the pre-race conjecture about this being the end of Lance Armstrong's reign as Tour de France champion? How he was too old, at 32? How no five-time winner had ever managed a sixth victory? How this might finally be Jan Ullrich's year?
Friday, on a steep mountain slope in the Pyrenees, under a blazing sun that followed a strong rain, Armstrong put all those notions to rest. In a display of raw power and with a seeming effortlessness that left stunned rivals in his dust, Armstrong cycled past the best of them -- Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, the formidable climber Iban Mayo -- to move up to second place overall in the Tour, and demonstrate why once again this year, he remains the man to beat.
And he did it where he has won so many other Tours in the past, in the unforgiving Pyrenees mountains, where he was able again to show how he can dominate the competition and seize control of the race, and most often by catching his competitors completely off guard.
"It was a great day, especially with the weather," Armstrong said after his dramatic showing. "First the heat, then the thunder, then the sun again. For the overall standings, it's great."
Armstrong didn't win Friday's 12th stage, which ended up at the ski resort of La Mongie. That honor went instead to Ivan Basso of Italy, leader of the CSC team and the only other rider able to keep pace wheel-to-wheel with Armstrong during the mile of the climb.
Armstrong was generous to Basso afterward, disputing any suggestion he allowed the Italian to take the stage. "Ivan was the strongest today," Armstrong said. "I didn't give it to him."
And the Texan was equally complimentary to his rivals, and especially Ullrich, the German challenger, even while acknowledging that with his own powerful performance, they all "took it on the chin."
"Jan and Tyler took it on the chin today, but we expect them to be back tomorrow," Armstrong said. Further complimenting Ullrich -- a past Tour winner whom he has consistently rated as his toughest opponent -- Armstrong said, "Jan's not finished. He starts slow and he's a tough guy who doesn't give up. He might have taken it on the chin today, but he always comes back."
But the numbers showed just how daunting the task will be for the riders hoping to block Armstrong's path to a sixth consecutive Tour win. Ullrich lost 2 minutes 30 seconds to Armstrong; Hamilton fell a further 3:27 behind Armstrong, his former mentor. A former Armstrong teammate from U.S. Postal, Roberto Heras, dropped 2:57 to the Texan. And Iban Mayo lost 1:03 to the five-time winner.
Armstrong started the day 9:35 behind the French leader, Thomas Voeckler, who gave local fans a hometown hero to cheer, but who was never considered a serious contender to win the Tour. Voeckler finished way back in 41st place, nearly four minutes back -- enough to allow him to wear the Tour leader's yellow jersey for at least one more day.
With his performance, Armstrong moved to just 5:24 back -- and he is likely to whittle that away as the race continues in the Pyrenees on Saturday.
Ullrich was sanguine after Friday's stage. "I am disappointed, of course," he said. "It was actually going well until the rain," he said, adding that he felt cold following the downpour and felt he was losing his legs in the last climb. Ullrich added, "I have a good team, and if I re-find my legs, maybe I can come back."
It was actually Armstrong and teammate Jose Azevedo who set the pace for most of the climbing, until about 21/2 miles remained in the 122-mile stage, when Carlos Sastre broke away. That began the furious dash to the finish that saw Armstrong accelerate, and the others drop away, one by one.
The race continues Saturday with another tough Pyrenees mountain stage, a 127.7-mile uphill stretch ending up at the Plateau de Beille. Before Friday, Armstrong had cautioned that Saturday's stage would "suit me better," and that Friday's race to La Mongie might be better suited to a more explosive rider. Not quite.