After racing 11 stages, 46 hours and 2,010 kilometers so far in the 2004 Tour de France, the battle finally begins for Lance Armstrong in his quest for a record sixth title, and the 32-year-old cancer survivor enters Friday's first foray into the mountains sounding like a confident man.
If the first half of the Tour is any indication, Armstrong is well on his way to making history.
Armstrong enjoyed a near-flawless opening half, taking valuable time on rivals Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo despite new rules limiting the losses in the decisive team time trial.
Well-protected inside his blue U.S. Postal Service train, Armstrong avoided crashes that sent more than 100 riders skittering to the ground in the rainy, windy first week.
"It was close to perfect," Armstrong surmised. "I can't complain. We're in a good position. I feel good, I feel healthy. Now we start the next part."
The Texan has barnstormed his way to five straight Tour victories and last July became the fifth member of cycling's exclusive five-win club.
While he's often butted heads with the fickle manners of French fans, his dominance on the bike is making believers out of his most skeptical critics.
"Armstrong has an exceptional reading of the race. With his experience, his professionalism, he never makes any mistake," said Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who once criticized Armstrong for being arrogant. "His tactical sense is unbelievable. His performance thus far was flawless."
To ensure an exciting race to equal last year's fireworks, Tour organizers pushed all the action into the final half of the three-week Tour.
Standing in his way are five hard mountain stages and a gang of rivals intent on stopping him in his tracks.
Halfway to Paris, Armstrong is quietly poised in sixth overall at 9 minutes, 35 seconds behind French national champion Thomas Voeckler, a young rider expected to fade in the steep mountains.
Against his main rivals, Armstrong leads Hamilton by 43 seconds, 1997 Tour winner Ullrich by 55 seconds and Mayo, a feared Spanish climber, by more than 5 minutes.
"I'm glad we have a bit of a cushion on those guys. I would not want to be in the reverse position and have to make up a minute on Ullrich," Armstrong said. "We can be more conservative in the mountains and we'll see what happens. We'll still attack if we have to attack."
The "real" Tour starts Friday with a two-climb stage to the ski resort at La Mongie followed up by the grueling seven-climb, 127.4-mile stage Saturday to Plateau de Beille.
"They're tough, tough," Armstrong said. "The second day is epic. There's going to be 5,000 meters [16,500 feet] of climbing. There are not many days like that. Saturday suits me better. [Friday] is good for a small, explosive rider who can stay on the wheel."
It's the perfect setting to cap Armstrong's made-for-Hollywood story. With rocker girlfriend Sheryl Crow watching, the 32-year-old Texan will likely vault back into the yellow jersey.
Voeckler is expected to fade in the steep climbs of the Pyrénées and there are dozens of other riders still hanging in the top 30 overall who likely won't be in the picture after this weekend.,
Here's how the favorites for the overall title stack up against Armstrong heading into the mountains:
Tyler Hamilton, 11th at 10:18 back -- 43 seconds behind Armstrong (one crash): Armstrong's former teammate injured his back in a crash in Stage 6, when he flipped over his handlebars and cracked his helmet into three pieces. The sometimes-fragile New Englander vows to attack in the Pyrénées. "If I have the legs, I will go on the attack. I believe I can still win. Our team is one of the strongest and I don't want to lose the opportunity."
Jan Ullrich, 17th at 10:30 back -- 55 seconds behind Armstrong (no crashes): Ullrich has been the mystery so far in the Tour, quietly riding in the bunch and avoiding trouble. The 1997 Tour champion is in his best shape in five years and vows to beat Armstrong. "The time I'm behind Armstrong is no reason to be scared now. I don't want to wait to the final time trial in Besancon to take time on Armstrong. If I feel good, I need to attack. The Tour starts now."
Roberto Heras, 27th at 11:44 back -- 2:09 behind Armstrong (one crash): Another former Armstrong teammate taking on his ex-boss, the Spanish climber lost valuable time in the prologue and team time trial. Heras absolutely promises he will attack in the Pyrénées. "I have bet my entire season on the Tour. I am looking forward to the steep roads, where I am at my best. We will try to put Armstrong under pressure."
Iban Mayo, 51st at 15:02 back -- 5:27 behind Armstrong (two crashes): The 26-year-old Basque rider has suffered through bad timing, crashing less than one mile short of the decisive cobblestones in Stage 3 and losing nearly four minutes. He smashed his elbow in a finish-line crash in Stage 6 and then was forced to switch bikes at the base of the steepest climb in Wednesday's stage. "I hope the worst is behind me. I can't believe my bad luck, but now I have nothing to lose. I will attack with all my strength."
Andrew Hood, who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996, is a freelance writer based in Spain.