PARIS – Lance Armstrong (search) has just one more line to cross Sunday before seizing his place in sporting history as the first six-time winner of the celebrated Tour de France (search), an agonizing, 23-day test of skill and guts that rewards the fastest overall cyclist.
Champagne was guaranteed to flow among Armstrong's U.S. Postal team as they pedaled toward the finish line on Paris' famed Champs-Elysees (search) boulevard, where the 32-year-old Texan was expected to collect the winner's yellow jersey later in the day.
For once, the riders looked like they were having fun as the stage got under way in Montereau, south of Paris. Armstrong smiled and chatted with adversaries from other teams while his Postals hovered ahead to keep him safe. Other riders snapped pictures with cameras as they rode by stretches of golden wheat fields.
Only a crash or other disaster can stop him from becoming, in titles at least, the greatest of the Tour's 53 winners.
"To be on the verge of breaking history is incredibly special," he said Saturday. "If I make it, in yellow, climbing the top step tomorrow and making history will be the moment that I carry forward forever."
While Armstrong's victory is all but assured when the race ends at about 11:30 a.m. EDT, a furious battle was expected for the green jersey that rewards the race's best sprinter. Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd and Eric Zabel will still be vying for that title.
As overall leader, Armstrong set out last Saturday on the rolling 34.1-mile time trial course that looped south of Besancon, the birthplace of literary giant Victor Hugo. At the first time check 11 miles in, Armstrong was already 43 seconds quicker than Germany's Jan Ullrich, considered the American's chief rival when the race got under way July 3.
At the finish, the Texan almost caught Ivan Basso, even though the Italian started three minutes ahead of him.
The stage win was Armstrong's fifth this Tour, bettering his previous best of four in a single Tour since he inaugurated his reign in 1999 having conquered cancer.
"When I won the first one, I thought I could die and go away a happy man. To win six is very hard to put into words," he said. "I'm happy because it's over. I'm tired, in the head, in the legs. Everywhere."
Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's teammate, was third in Saturday's race against the clock, 1:27 back from Armstrong, but fast enough to overtake Basso for second in the overall standings. The German champion, who did not finish last year, was delighted.
"It's a dream come true ... The highlight of my career," he said.
Basso, the best young rider of 2002 and seventh last year, should finish third in Paris. Ullrich is destined for fourth — his first time off the podium.
"Lance is riding in a different league. I have enormous respect for the way he rides. He deserved to win," the German said.
Not only did Armstrong overpower his adversaries from Day 1, but they never rose to the challenge of trying to dethrone him. Aside from Ullrich, Spanish climbers Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo flopped in the mountains and abandoned, and American Tyler Hamilton went home injured.
Armstrong's lead of 6:38 over Kloden is not his biggest margin of victory, which remains 7:37 over Alex Zulle of Switzerland in 1999. But it was far better than last year, when he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
Then, he vowed to roar back this year. He has proved insatiable.
"I'm enjoying the competition more than ever, not to make history, not to make money, not for these things, but just for the thrill of getting on a bike and racing 200 other guys," he said.
Basso is 6:59 behind and Ullrich 9:09 back. With Kloden, they are the only riders within 10 minutes of Armstrong.
In the Alps, he won three stages in a row for the first time.
He also won the second and hardest of two days in the Pyrenees, having allowed Basso to take the first stage a day earlier. He was also spectacular in the debut time trial, dealing a psychological blow to adversaries from the get-go by placing second. He also won the team time trial with his U.S. Postal Service squad. Including that collective victory, Armstrong won more than one quarter of this year's 21 stages.
Armstrong said he hasn't decided whether to return in 2005 or miss a year.
"I can't imagine skipping the Tour, and if I do come, I would only come with the perfect condition. I would never come for a promenade," he said. "For me, it's a special, special event and I can't imagine not being here."