MONT VENTOUX, France -- On the bare, unbending mountain that has seen so much cycling history, Lance Armstrong zipped through the wind Thursday and put an iron grip on a second straight title in the Tour de France.
Armstrong increased his overall lead to nearly five minutes, losing by inches to another former champ, Marco Pantani, at the climax of a thrilling race up Mont Ventoux but winning a much bigger struggle.
While actually easing up in the final yards, he zoomed away from his nearest challenger, Jan Ullrich, who could not keep up when Armstrong followed Pantani's late charge. Ullrich lost 29 seconds, and more to Armstrong on bonus points.
With nine stages and about 1,000 miles to go in the three-week race, the 28-year-old from Austin, Texas, leads by 4 minutes, 55 seconds, and would practically have to fall off his bike to lose the yellow jersey of the leader.
''The only objective was to control the race and I didn't need to attack,'' Armstrong said. ''It was not important to win the stage.''
This stage was the Tour's 12th -- and the toughest. Ventoux, a huge mound of rock in Provence that has little shade or grass, is an unforgiving test. ''A god of Evil,'' the French philosopher Roland Barthes called it. ''The hardest climb on the tour, bar none,'' Armstrong said.
''It is very special, very mystical,'' he said before the stage. ''It is so hard that if you are good, you can make a big difference.''
The difference Thursday was the strength of Armstrong, who won the Tour a year ago after recovering from testicular cancer.
When a chance came to extend his lead over Ullrich, clearly struggling up the 6,270-foot peak, the Texan took it.
''I saw the opportunity because I saw Ullrich was suffering,'' he said.
Armstrong saved his energy in the final yards and finished with the same time as Pantani for the 93-mile stage: 4:15:11.
Ullrich finished fourth in the stage.
Team managers have said all along that the rider who emerged as leader at Ventoux, 62 miles north of Marseille, would still be wearing the yellow jersey as leader on the final dash along the Champs-Elysees on July 23.
That's Armstrong. And Thursday's racing did nothing to dispel the predictions.
''It was a good day for us,'' Armstrong said. ''There were two stories. I want to thank the team. The second was the wind. It was so windy today that I am glad it is finished.''
Armstrong was the only racer who could keep up with Pantani as the Italian rider made up a gap of more than 30 seconds in the late going.
''I suffered when I saw Armstrong,'' Pantani said. ''I thought he was exceptional and I congratulate a great champion.''
Ullrich and Richard Virenque were also in the group but couldn't keep up the pace in the tough final climb. Third overall was Joseba Beloki of Spain, 5:52 back.
Though the Tour has climbed the mountain 13 times, Pantani is only the sixth to win a stage finishing at the peak. Among the others, five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx won in 1970, while France's Jean-Francois Bernard was victorious in 1987.
Mont Ventoux has been the scene of tragedy as well as drama and heroics.
In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson, cheered on by fans under a burning sun, collapsed and died near the peak.
Tests showed he was using amphetamines.
As well as being the toughest leg, the course to Mont Ventoux was perhaps the most gorgeous of the Tour, with cyclists passing mile after mile of lavender fields and lemon trees before the final steep climb.
The race continues Friday with the 13th stage, a hilly 115-mile course from Avignon to Draguignan.
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