VILLARD-DE-LANS, France – Lance Armstrong (search) retook the overall lead in the Tour de France (search) on Tuesday, outsprinting his top two challengers to win the first stage in the Alps and close in on a record sixth straight title.
Armstrong moved past Ivan Basso and 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich in the curves before the closing stretch to claim his second stage victory in the 2004 Tour and the 18th of his illustrious career. He also has won two team time trials.
"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."
The Texan earned his 61st yellow jersey as overall leader, third-most in Tour history. Armstrong also wore yellow for one day after the team time trial July 7, but he ceded the lead to Thomas Voeckler the next day.
"It's exciting to take the yellow jersey, even if it's number 61 or however many. It's still a thrill," Armstrong said.
Voeckler held on until Tuesday, having bravely and narrowly defended his advantage in the Pyrenees. Armstrong entered those mountains trailing by nine minutes and whittled that down to 22 seconds heading to the Alps.
Five-time Tour runner-up Ullrich's bid to dethrone Armstrong was hurt in the Pyrenees, but Basso appeared to still have a shot after two weeks of punishing racing.
Neither Ullrich nor Basso, though, had the strength to stay with Armstrong at the end of Tuesday's 112-mile ride from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans, including seven climbs, in heat topping 85 degrees.
Having pulled ahead of the rest of the riders, that trio — plus Ullrich's teammate Andreas Kloden — jockeyed for an edge during the closing yards, trading leads of a bicycle length or so.
In the end, Armstrong had a little extra, flashing past Basso on a late turn and pumping his legs to carry himself across the finish line first, pumping his fists.
Basso was credited with the same finishing time, with Ullrich three seconds behind, and Kloden six seconds back in fourth place.
Armstrong earned bonus seconds for winning the stage, extending his lead on second-place Basso to 1 minute, 25 seconds. If he can hold that advantage for two more days in the Alps and in a time trial on Saturday, Armstrong will pedal into the history books when the three-week cycling marathon ends on the crowd-packed Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
Armstrong said his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, was yelling into his radio-linked earpiece that he had to beat Basso.
"Johan was screaming in my ear that I had to win because of the time bonuses," Armstrong said. "Every second counts."
Kloden is third overall, 3:22 off Armstrong's pace. Voeckler dropped to eighth, 9:28 behind Armstrong.
As overall leader, Armstrong will get the privilege of starting last for Wednesday's time trial. For the first time, the race against the clock is on the brutal ascent to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station, a Mecca of cycling with 21 rhythm-destroying hairpin bends.
Starting last is the equivalent of pole position, allowing Armstrong to see how other riders — notably Basso — fare on the ascent.
"There was still a part of me that wanted to ride a legendary mountain like L'Alpe d'Huez in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said, who added that he expects Basso will be "tough to beat" on the ascent. But "I have the good fortune of starting behind him, so I'll know his time splits all the way up, which is a big advantage," Armstrong said.
Fans have been camping out for days along the Alpine climb. The town, which usually has a population of 1,500 people, is expecting up to 1 million to converge on the mountain for the cycling spectacle.