Armstrong ready for 'epic' finish

On a narrow, twisting road high in the French Alps, hundreds of thousands of crazed cycling fans are already lining up for a front-row seat to history.

Armstrong hopes to put the finishing touches on the 2004 Tour de France in Wednesday's epic stage up the 21 switchbacks at L'Alpe d'Huez in what could be a 9.6-mile launching pad to a record sixth Tour de France victory.

"I'm excited for L'Alpe d'Huez," Armstrong said about the climbing time trial. "It's going to be an epic day."

On Tuesday, Armstrong whetted the appetites of fans with his second win in four days and gave his bid for history new momentum.

After sprinting ahead of rivals Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, an emotional Armstrong punched his fists into the crisp, French mountain air after roaring across the line victorious for the 18th time in his Tour career.

"There's something special in winning in a sprint. To win alone on top of a mountain is fun, but to win a sprint is much more intense" said Armstrong, now leading Basso by 1 minute and 25 seconds.

The win also nudged him into the race leader's maillot jaune, just in time for the 32-year-old cancer survivor to rocket into the history books.

"There's a part of me that wanted to ride a legendary mountain like L'Alpe d'Huez in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said. "I cannot lie -- it's exciting to take the yellow jersey, even if it's day No. 61 or whatever. It's still a thrill."

With just five days to go in the three-week, 20-stage grind across Belgium and France, Armstrong can smell the finish line, but he won't publicly admit it.

"It's not over yet," said Armstrong, who came back from testicular cancer to win the Tour for a first time in 1999. "Ivan is riding super. It's not over. I think Ivan can ride a good race (Wednesday)."

Armstrong's quest for history has gone a lot smoother than anyone expected when he lined up July 3 in Liège. After Armstrong stumbled and bumbled his way to a fifth successive victory in 2003 -- enduring crashes, dehydration, missteps, motivated rivals and intense heat -- many thought the Texan's best days were behind him.

Despite reports last winter that Armstrong was gorging on Krispy Kremes and frolicking with rocker girlfriend Sheryl Crow, Armstrong was quietly busting his butt to be ready for three weeks of war in July.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion who almost derailed Armstrong in 2003, was back to his old tricks and gained too much weight over the winter.

"Ullrich's problem is that he wastes too much time finding the right condition," said U.S. Postal Service director Johan Bruyneel. "Three months ago in the Fleche Wallonne (in April), he was very far from the shape he should have been in at that time of the year."

Once the Tour started, Armstrong was clearly back in top form. His U.S. Postal Service team surged to victory in the team time trial, giving Armstrong the yellow jersey. But Armstrong was glad to play kingmaker, letting 25-year-old French national champion Thomas Voeckler keep it warm for him until the Alps.

Iban Mayo, the dangerous Spanish climber, crashed in the decisive flat stage in the first week over dangerous cobble-stoned roads in northern France. Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong's former lieutenant who finished fourth in the 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone, fell hard in Stage 6 and abandoned before exiting the Pyrénées.

Once in the Pyrénées for two hard climbing stages, Armstrong punched the accelerator with his trademark high-cadence rhythm, and the favorites fell away like the French defending Paris.

Ullrich, Hamilton, Mayo, Aitor Gonzalez -- the 2002 Vuelta winner who once boasted he'd crush Armstrong like a "toad in the road" -- Heras and Gilberto Simoni; they were all spit out the back under the pressure set by Armstrong's blue train.

"Lance won the battle of the Pyrénées," said Patrick Lefevere, manager of the Quick Step team. "But the Tour is a three-week war. The only way he'll lose is if he has a bad day. He is human, we suppose."

But there is one rider hanging on Armstrong's wheel, something that hadn't been done since fallen Italian star Marco Pantani put the scare into Armstrong in the 2000 Tour.

Basso, a quiet, hard-working and confident former world amateur champion, is poised to derail Armstrong if he falters for just one moment in the Tour's final crescendo.

"We take him seriously," Armstrong said. "He's riding super strong and he's a rider we consider to be a threat and one of the brightest hopes for the future of the Tour de France."

If Armstrong can widen his lead up L'Alpe d'Huez, the final days of the Tour should be nothing more than a victory parade to Paris. Thursday's mountain stage could be troublesome only if Armstrong cracks. Friday's hilly stage favors a breakaway while Saturday's final time trial serves up Armstrong another chance for a stage victory.

If history repeats itself, Sunday's final romp down the Champs Elysées will be Armstrong's personal victory parade with a few hundred thousand guests invited along for the ride.

Andrew Hood, who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996, is a freelance writer based in Spain.