Lance Armstrong capped his most dominant Tour de France with a crushing win in the final time trial Saturday, all but guaranteeing him a place in history as the first six-time winner of the 101-year-old race.
Pedaling furiously for a victory he didn't even need, Armstrong again overpowered his rivals, building a gaping lead that he carried past cheering crowds to the finish in Besancon.
The Texan, riding a high-tech aerodynamic bike and wearing his bright yellow leader's jersey, finished his ride in 1 hour 6 minutes 49 seconds -- 1:01 faster than second-place Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion and five-time runner-up.
Only a crash or other disaster on Sunday's last ride into Paris can keep Armstrong from becoming, in titles at least, the greatest of the Tour's 53 winners.
"To be on the verge of breaking history is incredibly special," he said. "If I make it, in yellow, climbing the top step tomorrow and making history will be the moment that I carry forward forever."
As overall leader, Armstrong set out last on the rolling 34.1-mile time trial course that looped south of Besancon, the birthplace of literary giant Victor Hugo. At the first time check 11 miles in, Armstrong was already 43 seconds quicker than Ullrich.
At the finish, the Texan almost caught Ivan Basso, even though the Italian started the 19th stage three minutes ahead of him.
The stage win was Armstrong's fifth this race, bettering his previous best of four in a single Tour since he began his reign in 1999, after having conquered cancer.
"When I won the first one, I thought I could die and go away a happy man. To win six is very hard to put into words," he said.
Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's teammate, was third in Saturday's race against the clock, 1:27 behind Armstrong, but fast enough to overtake Basso for second in the overall standings.
Basso, the best young rider of 2002 and seventh last year, should finish third in Paris. Ullrich is destined for fourth -- his first time off the podium.
"Lance is riding in a different league. I have enormous respect for the way he rides. He deserved to win," the German said.
From Day One, Armstrong's adversaries never rose to the challenge of trying to dethrone him. Aside from Ullrich, Spanish climbers Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo flopped in the mountains and abandoned the race, and American Tyler Hamilton went home injured.
"We'd hoped for better, obviously," Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said. "Is it because of his strength and the strength of his team? Yes. It is also doubtless due to a relative weakness of the opposition."
Armstrong himself remained modest, saying, "I wouldn't be so bold as to call it a domination."
His lead of 6:38 over Kloden is not his largest margin of victory, which remains 7:37 over Alex Zulle of Switzerland in 1999. But it is far better than last year, when he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
Armstrong vowed to roar back this year -- and has.
"I'm enjoying the competition more than ever, not to make history, not to make money, not for these things, but just for the thrill of getting on a bike and racing 200 other guys," the 32-year-old said.
Basso is 6:59 behind and Ullrich 9:09 back. With Kloden, they are the only riders within 14 minutes of Armstrong, who won three stages in a row in the Alps for the first time.
He also won the second and hardest of two days in the Pyrenees, after allowing Basso to take the first stage a day earlier. He was also spectacular in the debut time trial, dealing a psychological blow to adversaries from the get-go by placing second. He also won the team time trial with his U.S. Postal Service squad. Including that collective victory, Armstrong won more than one quarter of this year's 21 stages.
But even with six crowns, debate will rage on whether Armstrong is a cut above the four five-time champions he will eclipse. Belgian Eddy Merckx, for example, holds the Tour record of stage wins, 34, compared to 21 for Armstrong. And Merckx and Frenchman Bernard Hinault collected more yellow jerseys as race leader. Merckx won 96, Hinault 78. Armstrong will earn his 66th jersey Sunday.