VILLARD-DE-LANS, France If Lance Armstrong was going to show any weakness, if he was going to let Ivan Basso or Jan Ullrich gain some confidence, it would happen Tuesday, it appeared.
As the three cycling stars headed to the finish line ahead of the pack, each had a shot at winning this year's first Tour de France stage in the Alps. Joined by Ullrich's teammate Andreas Kloden, all jockeyed for an edge in the closing yards, trading leads of a bicycle length or so.
In the end, Armstrong produced something extra, flashing past Basso on a late turn and winning the stage to reclaim the yellow jersey, a familiar position for the Texan who has won the last five Tours.
His sixth crown never seemed so close. Still, Armstrong says the only place to declare victory is on the crowd-packed Champs-Elyses when the Tour ends Sunday.
''It's not finished,'' he said. ''Today wasn't easy.''
Finding fresher legs at the end of a seven-climb, 112-mile trek into the mountains, Armstrong outsprinted Italy's Basso, his closest rival, and Germany's Ullrich, the 1997 champion and five-time runner-up. Basso was credited with the same finishing time (4 hours, 40 minutes, 30 seconds) in the 15th stage, while Ullrich was three seconds back, and Kloden was six seconds behind.
It was an impressive display by Armstrong, and one that must have been demoralizing for his pursuers.
''There's something special in winning in a sprint,'' Armstrong said. ''To win in a sprint for me is much more intense than being alone.''
He earned a time bonus for the victory, extending his overall lead over Basso to 1:25. If the American makes that stand up over the last five days of the three-week cycling marathon, he'll break the record for most Tour titles.
The stage victory was Armstrong's second this Tour and the 18th of an illustrious career marked by a comeback from cancer. He also has two team time trial victories, this year and last, with his U.S. Postal Service squad.
To fans' cheers, Armstrong slipped into his 61st yellow jersey after his win, overtaking Miguel Indurain for third place in Tour history. Only Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault like Indurain and Armstrong, five-time Tour champions earned more of the garish but coveted shirts.
''It's exciting to take the yellow jersey, even if it's number 61 or however many. It's still a thrill,'' Armstrong said.
He collected the yellow jersey this year after winning the team time trial July 7, then ceded it to Thomas Voeckler the next day. Having Voeckler resilient but not a genuine contender shoulder the burden of defending the lead took pressure off Armstrong and his teammates.
Delighting local fans, the French champion rode in yellow for 10 days, through flat stages in western France, hills in central France and climbs in the Pyrenees, where he narrowly fended off Armstrong's charge. On Tuesday, though, Armstrong pounced when Voeckler wilted in 86-degree heat.
Voeckler finished 54th to fall to eighth overall, 9:28 behind. Kloden, 3:22 back, is in third overall, while the fifth-place Ullrich is 6:54 off the pace. Another prerace favorite, Iban Mayo, pulled out Tuesday, his morale shot by a crash in Week 1 and two disappointing days in the Pyrenees.
While he conceded a victory to Basso in those mountains Friday, Armstrong is through offering gifts. Armstrong said manager Johan Bruyneel yelled through his radio-linked earpiece not to waste any time Tuesday.
''Johan was screaming in my ear that I had to win because of the time bonuses,'' Armstrong said. ''Every second counts.''
Now as overall leader, Armstrong gets the advantage of starting last in the next big challenge, a time trial Wednesday that for the first time is up the brutal ascent to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station, with 21 rhythm-destroying hairpin bends.
Starting last will allow Armstrong to see how Basso fares over the 9.6 miles.
''They don't call it the 'Race of Truth' for nothing,'' Armstrong said. ''It's the race where people who have done the most work are the ones that excel.''
That should include him. ''We spent a week there and rode up and down every day,'' he said.
And this time, Armstrong will be wearing his favorite yellow shirt.
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