Lance Armstrong conquered L'Alpe d'Huez, the Tour de France, and very likely history Wednesday with a furious assault that earned him another impressive stage victory on cycling's most legendary climb.
Starting last of 157 riders, an advantage accorded him as the Tour's overall leader, Armstrong ignited at the start of the time trial in Bourg-d'Oisans and only accelerated further over the next 9.6 lung- and leg-searing miles.
By the first time check, he already was far ahead of all would-be contenders -- 40 seconds faster than Jan Ullrich -- and more than a minute faster than Andreas Kloden. By the next time check, his margin over the two Germans had grown greater.
Well before the finish, he caught Italy's Ivan Basso, who had begun two minutes earlier. Basso had been the one rider still considered capable of overtaking Armstrong by the Tour's conclusion in Paris.
This day, the 32-year-old Texan -- cancer survivor and five-time Tour champion -- came ever-closer to adding one more title to his name: Invincible.
"I'm real careful about counting to the number six," Armstrong said. "I'll do that on the final lap on the Champs-Elysees."
The reference was to Sunday's final stage. Barring accident or injury, Armstrong will become the first cyclist in the 101-year history of this storied race to win six times.
"The Tour de France is over, baby!" one-time Tour racer Alex Stieda of Canada exulted as the champion shot by, teeth bared, soaked in sweat, standing out of his saddle, about 150 meters from the finish.
Until then, Armstrong almost made it look easy, powering down on his pedals so smoothly and relentlessly that he might as well have been spinning in a gym back home.
The thousands gathered near the finish roared their approval. They banged on the long barriers keeping them off the roadway, blew horns, waved flags -- a few of them Stars and Stripes.
Armstrong's time of 39 minutes 41 seconds put him 61 seconds ahead of Ullrich for the day and 3:48 beyond Basso's reach in the overall standings. As he moved past Basso during the climb -- Armstrong stared straight ahead as the Italian turned toward him briefly on a straightaway -- the American's focus never wavered.
"That is incredibly motivating for a rider when you see you're catching somebody," Armstrong said. "I have a ton of respect for Ivan. I think he's the biggest threat in the race. I think he's the brightest future for the Tour."
The message that sent to the rest of the field, said Australian Robbie McEwen, who won two stages of this event in 2002, was, "I'm on my way to number six and there's nothing much you can do about it."
Not only that, McEwen added: "What's to keep him from coming back next year and going for number seven?"
Armstrong was far more modest, saying merely that he felt "very comfortable" the entire ride. He'd concentrated on being especially careful given the often-fanatical onlookers who narrowed the first several miles into a claustrophobic chute of asphalt.
Some literally jumped in front of the racers waving hands, signs or other paraphernalia. At one point, it appeared that a policeman tackled two men. Last year on the Luz-Ardiden climb, Armstrong nearly lost any chance of victory when his handlebars snagged the strap of a woman's bag, forcing him to fall.
"I wanted it to be a safe stage," he said.
Safe, and dominant. Armstrong's U.S. Postal team director, Johann Bruyneel, elaborated a little more. "We thought it was going to be a really big day," he said. "And it was a big day."
That time of 39:41? Though not a L'Alpe d'Huez record, still "a very impressive performance," Bruyneel said.
The afternoon stage may have been only a brief test of speed and endurance for the riders. But for the massive crowds that had overrun the mountain in anticipation these past two weeks -- creating a scene of revelry and absurdity that might be replicated by crossing Carnival in Rio, the Super Bowl and a huge flea market -- their own trial commenced hours earlier.
Some estimates pegged the total number of spectators here at nearly one million. And by 7 a.m., hordes of them already had staked their claim to prime viewing locations.
Young and old, they perched precariously on the Alps' steep slopes. They wedged stools and folding chairs over the tiny ditch that hugs one side of the road. They packed the Alpine village, suddenly a teeming city and a Babel of tongues from all over the world.
Peter Boehlke of Minnesota and Jeff Suddendorf of Wisconsin had forsaken all comfort overnight and hunkered down in sleeping bags on the dangerously narrow shoulder on the final curve up the mountain.
"It wasn't very pleasant," Suddendorf said. "The Germans were singing until 3 in the morning."
Their reward, though, which they shared with strangers from Oregon and California, was a sweeping vantage of the riders at more than two points of approach and passing. They planned to cheer for all, yet armed with Texas and American flags, their allegiance ultimately lay with Armstrong.
For Boehlke, the connection has to do with more than just bicycles. Doctors diagnosed him four years ago with the same kind of testicular cancer that almost killed Armstrong. Just before leaving for France, Boehlke underwent his latest CAT scan.
"Four years and all clean," Boehlke said. "Another victory."