The men who competed against Lance Armstrong in the U.S. amateur and junior ranks called him "the King," and he has since grown into the nickname and become cycling royalty.
On Sunday, the King will take on the queen of the Tour de France -- the queen stage, cycling argot for the most taxing and potentially spectacular day of a race.
It will be Armstrong's last day of racing in the majestic Pyrenees he has conquered so many times, and it could determine whether he will go out as a winner. He has a decent but not totally safe lead over his closest contenders after finishing second by 56 seconds Saturday to Austrian rider Georg Totschnig, whose breakaway Stage 14 win didn't threaten Armstrong's position.
Sunday's itinerary features a half-dozen categorized climbs that rise, dip and spike again before the backbreaking uphill finish. The final climb, up Pla d'Adet to the town of Saint-Lary Soulan, is rated "beyond classification," and riding it after the previous five will require an effort beyond belief for most riders, especially because temperatures are expected to soar into the 90s again.
Armstrong doesn't have to take Sunday's stage to capture his seventh straight Tour, but he is winless this season and there would be a certain kingly quality to arriving first on the last ascent.
"It's not important," he demurred Saturday. "But I can't seem to win one this year. . . . I'd also be happy if I left with a victory in the Saint-Etienne time trial" next Saturday, the second-to-last day of the race.
"But tactics are tactics. If we have to let a group go up the road and get 10 or 15 minutes and let them win the stage, and still control the race and keep the team together, I'd much rather do that than win the stage."
The tactics turned interesting Saturday, as the T-Mobile team borrowed a line from Discovery's crib sheet and ratcheted up the pace at the front of the peloton as the riders approached the foot of the day's first climb. The aggressive tempo blew the race open and left Armstrong in a 10-man group behind Totschnig and several others in a breakaway group for two tough ascents, accompanied by most of his strongest rivals.
T-Mobile's three stars -- Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden -- ganged up to attack but weren't able to lose the rest of the bunch. Vinokourov and Kloden wilted and the group eventually dwindled to five: Armstrong, Ullrich, CSC leader Ivan Basso and Armstrong's former teammates, Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), but the two U.S. riders faded halfway up the mountain.
After Totschnig crossed the line alone, Armstrong and Basso dropped Ullrich and made it a two-man race in a replay of two Pyrenees stages last year. Armstrong won that wrestling match by two seconds and is now 1 minute 41 seconds up on the man in second place, Danish rider Mickael Rasmussen of the Rabobank team.
Rasmussen could not stay with Armstrong's group on the last climb but hung on to finish 1:47 behind Totschnig. He backslid 51 seconds in the overall standings and remains in second place.
The climbing specialist needs a superlative performance Sunday to reach the podium in Paris, as he is not skilled in time trials and will lose time to several other contenders in Saint-Etienne.
"I'm a little disappointed about today. I was hoping to be able to play a bigger role in the final [climb], but unfortunately I had a bad day and I had to ride a little more defensively," Rasmussen said.
Discovery Team Director Johan Bruyneel pronounced the day a success because Armstrong was able to gain time on Rasmusssen, Basso and Ullrich, the riders closest to him in the standings.
"The biggest danger for Lance now is 'un jour sans,' " Bruyneel said, using a French phrase that means "a day without," or physical depletion.
Armstrong said he was not surprised by the strength of both Basso and Ullrich, who had by far his most impressive day of the race and looked completely unaffected by two crashes over the previous two weeks along with a continuous barrage of criticism from the German media.
Basso "was on the front pulling -- he was riding fast and let's not forget he was the one doing all of the attacking," Armstrong said. "At the same time, Jan is a tough dude. He was following all the attacks and he was immediately on the wheel. Basso was getting gaps and Jan was coming back.
"Tomorrow is very tough. I would not want to be making explosive moves on tomorrow's stage. Tomorrow you have to wait and save everything for the final climb, in my opinion."