PAU, France There are rare, inspiring moments in sports when the magic all comes together. Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong conjured his up on a mountain in the Pyrenees.
In a feat to match Michael Jordan's championship-winning basket that sunk the Utah Jazz in 1998 or Pete Sampras' comeback win at the 2002 U.S. Open, Armstrong saved his chances of capturing a record-tying fifth Tour de France on a mist-shrouded 8.3-mile stretch of road.
It's a fact of life for Armstrong that his sport cannot match basketball or tennis for popularity in his native America and he still may lose this year's Tour. But in that exhausting climb to the Pyrenean ski station of Luz-Ardiden, Armstrong the true champion shone through.
The two weeks that led to his victory were as torturous as the ascent itself.
Armstrong, a 31-year-old Texan steeled by his winning battle against cancer, has had a troubled Tour. Instead of dominating the three-week slog around France, he's struggled with illness, crashes, team and equipment problems and legs that lacked their usual vigor.
The Tour is perhaps sport's most grueling event; it preys on problems like those. As the miles rolled by, Armstrong's challengers have closed in. For four years, they had ridden in his dust. Now, they sensed he might be ready to fall.
Closest was Jan Ullrich, a 29-year-old German who won the Tour in 1997 and twice finished runner-up to the Armstrong in 2000 and 2001. Just 15 seconds behind the Texan overall, Ullrich was gaining momentum. Armstrong, meanwhile, was talking about losing.
On Sunday, the day before the 98.9-mile stage to Luz-Ardiden, Armstrong said he'd go home and have a cold beer if defeated. ''I'm not going to cry and whine,'' he said.
The next morning's start in the picturesque town of Bagneres-de-Bigorre was clear and hot bad for Armstrong, who has struggled in the heat wave that has gripped this year's Tour. But up high, mist cooled the mountains. It was there that the day's dramas would play out.
That morning, Armstrong also awoke feeling better than he had for a while. ''He said: 'I think I'm back,''' said his sporting director, Johan Bruyneel.
Ullrich first powered away from Armstrong on the climb to the Col du Tourmalet, a pass at 9,976-feet. The Texan, saving himself for the Luz-Ardiden ascent coming 12 miles later, let him get away, sensing Ullrich was making his move too soon.
''I said 'OK, if you're going to ride like that all day then he can win the Tour de France because I can't continue,''' Armstrong later recalled.
By the top of the 10.6-mile climb, Armstrong had closed the gap. He and Ullrich crossed the pass and sped down the descent together.
On the final ascent to Luz-Ardiden, the huge crowd lining the route was growing frenzied in anticipation. They would not be disappointed.
Armstrong and Ullrich powered into the climb, legs whirring, probing to see who would crack first. Then came the unimaginable.
As he was starting to pull away, skirting the crowd about 5.9 miles from the finish, Armstrong's right handlebar caught a spectator's outstretched bag, toppling him. Iban Mayo of Spain hit Armstrong and fell, too. Ullrich, however, swerved to avoid them, and raced ahead. Armstrong's Tour, it seemed for an instant, was over. Ullrich would win.
But then two things happened. Ullrich, perhaps recalling that Armstrong had waited for him when he crashed in the 2001, slowed while the Texan picked himself up, remounted and rejoined the race.
''Ullrich showed incredible fair play,'' said Stephen Roche, the 1987 Tour winner. ''Both of them showed they are true champions.''
Armstrong almost fell again moments later when his right foot slipped from his pedal. But from there, he never looked back.
Powered by the adrenaline of the crash, he overtook Ullrich and Mayo and raced to the summit, finishing first, then slumped exhausted over his handlebars. His effort turned the razor-thin 15-second advantage he had over Ullrich into a more comfortable cushion of 67 seconds and gave the Texan and his team a morale boost at a vital time.
''He was very happy after, the atmosphere at the dinner table was excellent,'' said Bruyneel, Armstrong's sporting director. ''A big victory is hugely important psychologically we all needed that.''
When the race ends Sunday in Paris, after 2,125 miles and some 85 hours of riding, those precious seconds could decide the outcome of this centennial Tour which so close to the finish remains too close to call.
If Armstrong can stop Ullrich from making up time in the last mountain stage Wednesday, then his last big challenge will be the time trial Saturday.
Ullrich has already proved he's got the edge over Armstrong in that race against the clock. He beat the Texan by a whopping 96 seconds in a time trial last Friday. If he does so again Saturday, then he seems set to top the winner's podium on the Champs-Elysees.
But if Armstrong holds on, not letting Ullrich take too many seconds back, the German will likely finish runner-up again and the Texan will realize his dream of equaling Spanish rider Miguel Indurain's record of five successive victories a remarkable achievement given the grueling nature of the race.
''The Tour de France is glamour, pain, deception, mountains, everything,'' said Roche, the 1987 victor. ''Just winning it once is a big thing in itself.''
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