The remote possibility that Lance Armstrong might begin to weaken in the final phase of the Tour evaporated into the thin Alpine air here on the 15.5-kilometre climb of Alpe d'Huez, where the Texan took his third summit victory of this year's race with almost insulting ease.
One moment of Armstrong's 39min 41sec ascent of cycling's most mythical climb, one second outside Marco Pantani's record, said it all about his superiority. Close to the finish the US Postal leader swept past his Italian rival Ivan Basso, before yesterday's stage the only potential threat to his sixth Tour win.
The staggered starts in time trials meant Basso had set off on the climb to the Alpine ski station two minutes before the Texan, but the CSC rider's increasingly sagging shoulders and ragged riding style were the symptoms of someone fighting collapse more than any of his rivals.
Armstrong, on the other hand, was going from strength- to-strength, despite having fallen foul of the regulations and been prevented from using his specialist time trial bike because it was underweight by 120 grams. Armstrong was already 40 seconds ahead of his closest pursuer, the 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, two-thirds of the way up.
When the 32-year-old Armstrong crossed the line, he was 61 seconds up on the German, while his final advantage on Basso of 2min 22sec meant that overall, the gap between first and second has nearly tripled. It was a monumental achievement for the Texan, and one which gives him a comfortable cushion of 3min 48sec over Basso in the general classification, but he seemed underwhelmed by taking the first- ever mountain time trial to be held on Alpe d'Huez.
"I don't think they should have had this time trial, it wasn't safe for anybody," he said, "I think we all agree on that now, even the organisers." Nor was it as emotional, he argued, as his equally decisive win in 2001 on the same climb when "Telekom [Ullrich's team at the time] had been making the running and we weren't having a good race up until that point."
For Armstrong, the greatest danger was the public, estimated at a million strong, cheering him and the other riders on - and more often than not coming within a whisker of poleaxing someone in the field.
Armstrong recognised that "there were four or five kilometres where they were very close. It didn't affect my concentration, it's the same as with soccer, people are excited by any sporting event." He did not fall, but the accident affecting the 1999 Alpe d'Huez stage winner Giuseppe Guerini, who was hit by a spectator wielding a camera in the final kilometres, was at the back of everybody's minds.
Together with Armstrong, Guerini's current T-Mobile team-mates, Andreas Klöden and Ullrich, profited the most from yesterday's stage. While Ullrich leapfrogged over a floundering Francisco Mancebo to move into fourth, Klöden is now just over a minute behind Basso. Saturday's 55-kilometre time trial could well see Klöden move into second place in Paris.
As for Armstrong, such changes beneath him on general classification are largely inconsequential. He is probably more worried about today's final Alpine stage, the one last major obstacle en route to remaining in yellow until the race ends on Sunday.