LE GRAND-BORNAND, France - With an amazing sprint finish, Lance Armstrong won his third stage in three overpowering days Thursday at the Tour de France, pulling even further ahead of his outclassed rivals as he marches toward a record sixth crown.
The stage win was the Texan's fourth at this Tour - matching his previous best in other years where he also dominated - and perhaps the most incredible. He literally snatched victory from German Andreas Kloden at the line, pedaling so hard that his bicycle swung from side to side beneath him.
"No gifts this year," he said. "I want to win."
Even Armstrong seemed to find his sprint finish hard to believe. A beaming smile on his face, he jubilantly thrust his fists into the air as he zoomed past Kloden, who had seemed destined to win until Armstrong found that little extra at the end of one of the hardest mountain stages of the three-week cycling marathon.
Aside from satisfaction, the win gave Armstrong 20 bonus seconds. That helped extend his already sizable overall lead on Italy's Ivan Basso to four minutes and nine seconds - more than enough to carry Armstrong through to the top of the podium in Paris on Sunday and a place in history as the only six-time winner of the 101-year-old race.
"Sweet," he told teammate Floyd Landis as they hugged at the finish.
"You're the man. Nice sprint. I'm glad you got it," Landis replied.
Armstrong's original plan had been to let Landis win. But in the end, the chance for a 20th career individual stage victory and his third in as many days in his favorite cycling race was just too good to pass up.
At the top of the final climb, Armstrong reached an arm over to Landis and gave him the green light to try for what would have been his first individual victory. The finish was 8 miles away, at the end of a long, speedy descent to Le Grand-Bornand in the French Alps.
"I said, 'How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?' He said, 'Real bad,'" Armstrong recounted later. "I said, 'How fast can you go downhill?' and he said, 'I go downhill real fast.' He said, 'Can I do it?' And I said, 'Sure you can do it.' Then I told him, 'Run like you stole something, Floyd.'"
Landis zoomed away but was quickly caught by German Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's big rival. Armstrong laid chase, followed by Basso and Kloden. Together, Ullrich, Basso and Kloden had been the only riders able to stay with the two Americans on the last climb up the Col de la Croix Fry.
Hurtling toward the finish, the five riders eyed each other and jostled for position. Armstrong, distinctive in his overall leader's yellow jersey, put his sunglasses back on and took a couple of sips from his drink bottle.
Just after they passed under a blue inflatable arch marking a half-mile to go, Kloden made his move, spurting suddenly ahead to build a slight lead through the final corners. The win seemed his.
But then, when it was almost too late, Armstrong hit the highest of his many gears. With a final glance over his shoulder and within sight of the line, he rocketed off in pursuit and found just enough speed to edge Kloden for the win.
Armstrong dedicated his win to Landis, who single-handedly led his boss up the grinding final section of the last climb. His pace was so punishing that none but Basso, Kloden and Ullrich - No. 2, 3 and 4 in the overall standings behind Armstrong - could follow.
"He was the man of the day," Armstrong said of Landis. "In the Tour de France, to go to the front of the climb and ride tempo and end up with five guys is very hard to do."
"I really wanted him to win the stage," he added. "But it didn't work out that way."
When they hugged at the finish, still perched on their bikes, Landis told Armstrong: "I couldn't go any more."
The 28-year-old, racing in his third Tour, finished last of the five in the sprint. Kloden was second, in the same time as Armstrong, with Ullrich third and Basso fourth, both one second back. Kloden is 5:11 behind Armstrong overall, in third. Ullrich, Kloden's teammate, is 8:08 back, in fourth.
Both in the mountains and, on Thursday, in a sprint, Armstrong has been in a different class from his rivals.
He won the first Alpine stage on Tuesday, beating Basso, and rocketed to another overpowering win Wednesday in a time trial up the legendary ascent to the Alpine ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez.
He also beat Basso in the Pyrenees, having let the 26-year-old Italian win the first stage in his promising career a day earlier.
Since then, no more Mister Nice Guy.
"I've given gifts in the Tour de France, and very rarely has it ever come back to help me," said Armstrong. "This is the biggest bike race in the world and it means more to me than any bike race in the world."
He will be a favorite to take a fifth win, a record for him in a single Tour, in a time trial Saturday that will cement the final placings for top riders before the last ride Sunday to Paris.
Apart from sprinters, who battle for the glory of winning on the crowd-packed Champs-Elysees, most riders treat that last stage as a lap of honor. Last year, Armstrong sipped champagne as he pedaled.
Aside from his 20 individual stage victories, Armstrong also has two collective wins, taking the team time trial with his U.S. Postal Service squad both this year and last.
The other years when Armstrong won four stages in a single Tour were 1999, his first victory after a comeback from cancer, and in 2001 and 2002. His other stages came in 1993, 1995, 2000 and 2003.