LE-GRAND-BORNAND, France - The frame of Lance Armstrong's bike wobbled beneath him. So fierce was his pedaling, so strong was his will, that it seemed as if he might outsprint his machine while outsprinting Andreas Kloden to win yesterday's Stage 17 of the Tour de France.
It was a stage Armstrong didn't need to win, yet it was a victory that put a huge smile on his face. For the third consecutive day and the fourth time in this Tour, Armstrong crossed the finish line first. This time it was at the end of another grueling, 126.8-mile Alpine stage in heat that hit 95 degrees.
In an all-out sprint over the final 500 meters, he drove past a stunned Kloden. The victory was extremely narrow, but it confirmed what he'd proven Wednesday in the time trial up l`Alpe d`Huez: Armstrong is poised to win a sixth consecutive Tour, something never before accomplished.
When he won his fifth straight Tour a year ago by his smallest margin - 61 seconds - many said it was a sign he'd become old and tired.
No one is doubting him now.
Armstrong won yesterday's stage in 6 hours, 11 minutes, 52 seconds. Kloden received the same time. Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were one second behind. With the time bonus the Texan received for winning the stage, Armstrong now has a 4:09 lead over Basso. Kloden is third, 5:11 back, and Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, is in fourth place, 8:08 behind.
Yet yesterday's win was one he wanted for his teammate, Floyd Landis.
Landis, the son of Mennonites from Pennsylvania who now lives and trains in San Diego, set a blistering pace up the final two of five climbs, pedaling at such a rate that by the final hill, only five riders were still with him.
At the top of the last climb, with nothing but downhill racing to the finish and thousands of fans yelling their heads off, Armstrong turned to Landis and asked, "How bad to you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?" Landis answered, "Real bad."
Armstrong said he then asked Landis, "How fast can you go downhill?" and his teammate said, "I go downhill real fast." Armstrong recalled that Landis then said, `Can I do it?' And I said, `Sure, you can do it.' Then I told him, `Run like you stole something, Floyd.' "
Landis then did his best to take the stage, but had little left. So when Ullrich went hard in pursuit of Landis, it seemed as if Armstrong shrugged his shoulders. He rejoined the chase.
After the race, Bernard Hinault, one of the four other five-time Tour winners, met Armstrong on the podium and had a brief but pointed comment. "Perfect," he said to Armstrong. No gifts."
There have been other times when Armstrong has been gallant, stepping step back and giving another cyclist a stage. Most famously, in 2000, he appeared to let the late Marco Pantani take the victory at the end of a climb up Mount Ventoux. Pantani later said he resented the perception of a gift and the two exchanged heated words over several months.
"I`ve given gifts in the Tour and very rarely has it ever come back to help me," Armstrong said. "This is the biggest bike race in the world, and it means more to me than any bike race."
NOTE: The New York Times is reporting in today's editions that a high-ranking Tour official has said that if Armstrong wins a record sixth straight Tour, it will be his last. The official reportedly said Armstrong would turn his focus to at least one of the other two major cycling races, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a EspaM-qa, and several one-day classics. The official, who did not want to be identified, said Armstrong has already notified the Tour of his intent.
The assertion was denied by Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's agent and the chief executive of Tailwind Sports, which owns Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "We haven't even discussed that yet," Stapleton said. "No decisions have been made.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.