AX-3 DOMAINES, France -- As the Pyrenean peak loomed, the assault Lance Armstrong was bracing for finally came. Here, the six-time champion knew, was a Tour de France moment of truth.
"It's scary," he admitted later.
Emotionless behind their wraparound shades, Armstrong's pink-shirted rivals from the German T-Mobile squad raced into the steep ascent at full pelt. The tactic was simple -- isolate Armstrong by riding so hard that his teammates would be unable to stay with the pace.
It worked. By the time T-Mobile's racers were spent, Armstrong's support crew was strewn down the road and his long-tormented challengers, including T-Mobile leader Jan Ullrich, finally had him were they wanted him -- alone on a climb. Now it was man-to-man.
"In that situation you either fight back or you run away," Armstrong said.
He fought, and end result was familiar: Armstrong came out on top of his main challengers in an epic stage 14, taking another step toward a seventh consecutive Tour victory.
Even without his teammates who usually lead him up mountains, Armstrong fended off Ullrich, Italian Ivan Basso and others and dealt out punishment of his own by beating them to the ski station of Ax-3 Domaines, extending his overall lead.
Armstrong placed second, 56 seconds behind Georg Totschnig, the first Austrian since 1931 to win a stage. But he is not a challenger in the overall standings.
Basso, who is, stayed with Armstrong up to Ax-3 Domaines but couldn't follow his finishing sprint, placing third.
Ullrich was fourth, dropped by Armstrong's acceleration toward the end.
Overall, Armstrong's lead over Basso grew to 2 minutes, 46 seconds and to 4:34 over Ullrich. Those advantages could carry Armstrong to victory in Paris on July 24 if he keeps riding as he has.
Closest overall remains Michael Rasmussen. But the Dane lost 63 seconds to Armstrong, placing eighth. He trails Armstrong by 1:41 for now, but that will likely grow dramatically in a time trial on the Tour's penultimate day. Armstrong excels in clock-races; Rasmussen often struggles.
Armstrong's already comfortable lead over Ullrich going into the stage placed the onus on the German to try to make up time. The best hope of doing that was "to make Lance's team explode," said T-Mobile rider Alexandre Vinokourov.
T-Mobile made their move by sprinting into the toughest ascent, a 9.4-mile climb over the Port de Pailheres. It peaks at 6,565 feet and is so hard that it is classified as "hors categorie" -- or unrated.
Armstrong knew he was being set up for a fall.
"It's scary when you see five kilometers before the bottom the entire team go to the front and start riding as hard as they can," Armstrong said. "You see what is going to happen, the order they are in, you see what they are setting up for, so that naturally gives you fear."
Only Armstrong, Ullrich, Basso and a few others -- none of them the American's teammates -- matched the pace. With Armstrong alone, the challenges began.
Basso accelerated and was followed by Ullrich and Vinokourov.
But Armstrong handled the pressure.
Over the pass they rode and then raced down the descent into a final climb to Ax-3 Domaines. There, sweat glistening on his arms, Armstrong turned the tables, dancing out of his saddle from side to side.
Neither Basso nor Ullrich could match him -- and in the end, he left both behind.
Afterward, Armstrong praised T-Mobile's move as "the right thing to do."
But "I felt good at the time," he added. "I was motivated to not necessarily be put down by such strong tactics."
Basso, who rides for Team CSC, said Armstrong was "untouchable."
"I tried my utmost to see if I could push him to the limit but it wasn't possible," he said.
The brutal 137-mile trek was raced under a scorching sun. Riders poured water over themselves to cool down.
"The heat, the distance, it was hard, it was a very hard day," Armstrong said.
But the riders are getting no relief. On Sunday comes what Armstrong called "the hardest day of the Tour" -- a relentless 127.7-mile route from Lezat-sur-Leze that has a succession of five climbs before an "hors categorie" uphill finish to Saint-Lary Soulan.
Totschnig was part of a group that escaped from the main pack shortly after the start in the Mediterranean town of Agde. He shook off others in his group on the Port de Pailheres ascent and clung on from there up the final climb, holding off the rapidly gaining Armstrong.
The Austrian's time was 5 hours, 43 minutes and 43 seconds. He broke into tears at the line and jumped eight spots in the overall standings to 14th, still 10:39 behind Armstrong.
"An extraordinary day," Totschnig said. "I didn't think it was possible to win a stage like that."