For the first time in five years, and despite moving into the lead of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong is on the defensive.
Unable to prevent the brilliant young Basque climber Iban Mayo from blasting off halfway up L'Alpe d'Huez and gaining a two-minute advantage in a devastating lone victory, the four-times overall winner was hard pushed to hold back successive attacks by last year's runner-up, Joseba Beloki, as well as his fellow-American and former lieutenant Tyler Hamilton.
Neither escaped his clutches, but the fact that Beloki is renowned for never attacking the American - something he did on six occasions yesterday - and Hamilton is riding with a broken collarbone can hardly be encouraging for the Texan.
Sweating heavily, Armstrong was unusually pessimistic. "Sure, I've got the jersey, but what's really important are my sensations, and they're not good," he said. "I'm not as strong as I have been in other years. I actually felt worse at the start of the stage, and on L'Alpe d'Huez was slightly better, but even so, Beloki's attacks were really hard to answer."
As for Mayo, who gave Armstrong several headaches on the climbs in his last warm-up race, the Dauphine Libéré, the American seemed even more unsettled, claiming: "Perhaps if he goes on like this he'll win the Tour."
Now just over a minute behind Armstrong, the Basque rider was cautious about his prospects: "I want to enjoy today, rather think too much about tomorrow. But in any case, I will be back on the attack in the Pyrenees, where I know many of my own supporters will be out there to cheer me on."
Such unwillingness to go in for long-term crystal-ball gazing is probably not surprising given that the scenario is totally new - Armstrong has never seemed so vulnerable. Even his own US Postal team were taken aback by his lack of punch in the final climb, where the American has made it a personal tradition to attack and try to seal the race.
After a singularly dull assault on the Galibier, the Tour's highest climb, where a group of some 30 favourites trundled over the summit in the wake of Armstrong's blue-clad troops, one of the US Postal's climbing domestiques, Manolo Beltran, hammered on the accelerator on the lowest of the Alpe's 21 curves.
Beltran's move shattered the mini-peloton, but as Armstrong pointed out, "It also wrecked several of my other domestiques and it wasn't what I needed either. We'll be talking about that tonight, it won't happen again."
Among the first to crack was the race leader Richard Virenque. Victorious on Saturday at Morzine, the veteran climber began waving his head in distress as Armstrong and company disappeared up the road. He lost nine-and-a-half minutes.
Britain's David Millar was another victim of Postal's ferocious early charge, but the Cofidis team leader, making his first climb of L'Alpe D'Huez, none the less managed to limit the gap to just over six minutes, crossing the line in 22nd place, now his same position in the race. "There's no point in trying for the general classification now," he conceded, "but I'm going to keep on hanging in there and watching how the favourites race. I want to learn."
Forging a path through the tens of thousands of fans lining the 14-kilometre climb, Armstrong finally got the message through to his team-mates that he was not on a good day and threw his last domestique, Roberto Heras, into the fray.
The double attack was nearly fatal for 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, who decided to continue at his own pace rather than try to face the vicious accelerations ahead. After five kilometres of climbing just Hamilton, his bandaged white collarbone visible under his wide-open jersey, Mayo, the Telekom leader Alexandre Vinokourov and Beloki remained behind Armstrong.
When Beloki attacked Armstrong responded in person, but no sooner had one Basque rider been brought back, than another - Mayo - shot away, and on this occasion the American simply decided to let him go. It was an unprecedently passive reaction from a rider as belligerent as Armstrong, but as he explained, he simply could not afford to take any risks."I wasn't having a good day, so I decided to stay close to Beloki, who's a bigger threat overall," he said.
While Mayo steadily opened up a winning margin, Armstrong was left to face one attack after another from Beloki and from Hamilton, despite his injury. "Every time I tried to stand on the pedals I lost about 50 per cent of my strength," Hamilton admitted.
Nearing the ski resort at the summit, Armstrong's group continued to neutralise each other's moves, but Mayo was now completely unreachable. He finished more than two minutes ahead after going through a series of lengthy salutes to the crowd which possibly cost him some time, but about which he claimed he "didn't care. Today was special."
Armstrong is now 40 seconds ahead of Beloki, a worryingly tight margin, but Hamilton is still unsure that his countryman is in trouble. "He wasn't at his limit at any point," Armstrong's former team-mate commented. "He's not finished."
Perhaps, but it would seem the Texan has never had it so tough to make to Paris in yellow, either.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly.
EIGHTH STAGE (219km, 136 miles), Sallanches to L'Alpe d'Huez: 1 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel 5hr 57min 30sec; 2 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Telekom +1min 45sec; 3 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service +2:12; 4 F Mancebo (Sp) iBanestocom; 5 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel; 6 J Beloki (Sp) ONCE; 7 T Hamilton (US) Team CSC; 8 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo; 9 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel all same time; 10 P Caucchioli (It) Alessio +3:36; 11 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole; 12 R Heras (Sp) US Postal Service; 13 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi all s/t; 14 D Menchov (Rus) iBanesto +4:15.Selected: 22 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +6:09.
Leading overall standings (yellow jersey): 1 Armstrong 35hr 12min 50sec; 2 Beloki +40sec; 3 Mayo +1:10; 4 Vinokourov +1:17; 5 Mancebo +1:37; 6 Hamilton +1:52; 7 Heras +1:58; 8 Ullrich +2:10; 9 Basso +2:25; 10 Jaksche +3:19; 11 Beltran +3:20; 12 Zubeldia +3:25; 13 Menchov +3:29; 14 Moreau +3:34; 15 Laiseka +4:03; 16 P Caucchioli (It) Alessio 4:06; 17 S Garzelli (It) Vini Caldirola 4:44; 18 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step 4:48; 19 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner 4:58; 20 C Sastre (Sp) CSC 5:29. Selected: 22 Millar +6:04.
King of the Mountains overall (polka dot jersey): 1 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step 134pts; 2 Armstrong 63; 3 Mancebo 61; 4 R Aldag (Ger) Telekom 61; 5 Moreau 54; 6 B Poilvet (Fr) Credit Agricole 51; 7 P Bettini (It) Quick Step 50; 8 Mayo 49; 9 S Garzelli (It) Vini Caldirola 49; 10 Zubeldia 44.
Leading points overall (green jersey): 1 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeuxcom 120; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 110; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 104; 4 E Zabel (Ger) Team Telekom 98; 5 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole 91; 6 J-P Nazon (Fr) Jean Delatour 88; 7 L Paolini (It) Quick Step 87; 8 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 83; 9 R Vainstains (Lat) Caldirola 81; 10 Bettini 55.
Leading team: 1 Euskaltel 103:03:31; 2 US Postal +2:30; 3 iBanestocom +6:50; 4 CSC +8:33; 5 ONCE +9:12.
Leading (Under-25) young rider overall (white jersey): 1 Menchov 35:16:19; 2 M Astarloza (Sp) AG2R 2:14; 3 S Chavanel (Fr) Brioches 5:04; 4 JM Mercado (Sp) iBanestocom 5:19; 5 M Rogers (Aus) Quick Step 5:22.