The high mountains safely behind him, the finishing straight almost in sight, just one thing is missing as Lance Armstrong closes in on a seventh straight and last Tour de France title: a daily stage win of his own.
Even Armstrong, who doesn't like to tempt fate by claiming a win in advance, acknowledges that "the odds are good" that he'll be wearing the leader's yellow jersey when he retires from cycling at the end of the race.
Completing the last of three days in the Pyrenees on Tuesday left just a mostly flat stage, two medium mountain stages and the time trial for Armstrong to negotiate before the final victorious pedal up the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Armstrong's main rivals, sensing that their chances of catching the American are slipping away, tried testing him again on two rigorous climbs during the 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau.
But he brushed off the challenges, easily matching their uphill accelerations to defend his comfortable lead. He finished with his main rivals in a group behind stage winner Oscar Pereiro of Spain -- and announced he was feeling better than ever.
Armstrong called it a "no-chain" day -- meaning he felt so strong that it seemed as if his bicycle had no chain.
"I don't have a real explanation but I felt amazing on the bike, totally confident," Armstrong said. "The big, big days and the big difficulties are done. Now we have to stay safe, stay conservative and look to the final time trial and try and close it out."
Pereiro completed the 112.2-mile trek in 4 hours 38 minutes 40 seconds for his and his Swiss Phonak team's first win at the Tour. Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and other top riders were 3:24 back.
Armstrong's lead over Basso, who is looking to improve on his third-place finish last year, remains at 2:46. Mickael Rasmussen is third, 3:09 behind the six-time champion.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who is fourth overall, trails Armstrong by 5:58.
Armstrong, who was a brash young racer when he started but over time has come to respect the 102-year-old Tour's traditions, said he wants to honor the yellow jersey by riding all-out in the time trial on Saturday, a discipline in which he excels.
"I have to stay with my boys, stay out of trouble, then get to the final time trial, ride as hard as I can, represent the yellow jersey, show that he deserves to be the champ, then ride into Paris, a few laps, and that's it," he said.
In his winning Tours from 1999 to 2004, Armstrong won 19 individual stages, 10 of them time trials. In all but 2003, his shakiest victory, Armstrong's winning margins in Paris have exceeded six minutes. In 2003, he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
Some rivals already are pinning their hopes on next year -- when Armstrong will not compete.
"When Lance Armstrong, the sheriff, is no longer here, then we can think about doing something more," said Francisco Mancebo, a Spaniard who is fifth overall.