Perhaps they should move the finish line to the final hairpin turn of this famed French mountain, because if Lance Armstrong storms up its vertiginous slope Wednesday afternoon, as he seems almost destined to do, the 2004 Tour de France may effectively be over.
Barring injury or accident, the 32-year-old American appears just days from riding onto a stage all his own -- as the only cyclist to win the sport's most grueling competition six times.
He claimed the yellow jersey of race leader for the second time Tuesday, overtaking Thomas Voeckler in the overall standings during the 113-mile battle from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans in the Alps. The stage included a long-awaited break by Armstrong's German rival, Jan Ullrich, who eventually was caught by Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team and beaten by the Texan in a sprint to the finish that included Italy's Ivan Basso, who has emerged as the other major threat to Armstrong.
"There's something special in winning in a sprint," Armstrong said. "To win in a sprint for me is much more intense than being alone."
Armstrong earned his 61st yellow jersey as overall leader, third most in Tour history. Armstrong also wore yellow for one day after the team time trial July 7, but he ceded the lead to Voeckler the next day.
"It's exciting to take the yellow jersey, even if it's number 61 or however many. It's still a thrill," Armstrong said.
Basso was credited with the same finishing time, with Ullrich three seconds behind, and Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's T-Mobile teammate, six seconds back in fourth place.
Armstrong said his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, was yelling into his radio-linked earpiece that he had to beat Basso, whom he leads in the overall standings by 1 minutes 25 seconds.
"Johan was screaming in my ear that I had to win because of the time bonuses," Armstrong said. "Every second counts."
Kloden is third overall, 3:22 off Armstrong's pace. Voeckler dropped to eighth, 9:28 behind Armstrong.
Armstrong repeatedly has cautioned that the Tour never is over until the final sprint down the Champs-Elysees, which will come Sunday.
"It's not finished," he said. "Today wasn't easy."
Armstrong will begin Wednesday's potentially epic assault on the L'Alpe d'Huez with a relatively slim lead over Basso. This Stage 16 will be only a brief ride, a time trial in which each cyclist will race the clock for less than 10 miles.
But what a challenge they will face. After a short, flat stretch from Bourg d'Oisans, the road literally lifts skyward. Its tortuous grade over the next eight-plus miles averages nearly 8 percent. Between start and finish there are 21 curves so tight that on a map they look like a tangle of Silly String sprayed by a 4-year-old.
The summit will not be the highest point on this year's Tour -- that honor belongs to the 6,600-foot Col de la Madeleine featured in Thursday's stage -- but it rates a hors categorie nonetheless. Meaning, beyond any category of rating.
As overall leader, Armstrong will get the privilege of starting last for the time trial. Starting last is the equivalent of pole position, allowing Armstrong to see how other riders -- notably Basso -- fare on the ascent.
"There was still a part of me that wanted to ride a legendary mountain like L'Alpe d'Huez in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said, who added that he expects Basso will be "tough to beat" on the ascent. But "I have the good fortune of starting behind him, so I'll know his time splits all the way up, which is a big advantage," Armstrong said.
He can expect to peddle through dense roadside crowds. Fans have been camping out since early July on the mountain. French authorities closed the road early Tuesday, but not before tens of thousands -- maybe even more -- have made their way in huge RVs, with single pup tents, and on bicycles, of course. Virtually no six feet of asphalt along the route was not parked in or otherwise occupied.
Armstrong has both triumphed and faltered on L'Alpe in past years.
In 2001, he pulled off a dramatic performance worthy of an Academy Award. It came at the end of a long haul in which Armstrong seemed barely able to stay with the main pack of riders. His face was a grimace of intense effort and pain, and the television cameras riding alongside broadcast it to his competitors and the world.
Suddenly, everything changed. His suffering, it turned out, had been a charade, a mask that Armstrong dropped at the base of the mountain as he turned to eye Ullrich with a visible dare. He then powered to the top at a blistering, near-record pace, leaving the rest of the field far below.
There was no act last year, however, during his most difficult Tour. Armstrong slogged upward, arriving more than two minutes behind stage-winner Iban Mayo of Spain and worriedly conceding his sub-par performance afterward.
Mayo was one of those considered to have a good chance at ending Armstrong's incredible run this year. Like American Tyler Hamilton, however, he quit the race as the number of Armstrong's rivals continues to thin.
"They don't call it the 'Race of Truth' for nothing," Armstrong said. "It's the race where people who have done the most work are the ones that excel."
That should include Armstrong, who trained on L'Alpe d'Huez in the months before the Tour. "We spent a week there and rode up and down every day," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.