The final mountain stage of the 2005 Tour de France passed comfortably yesterday for Lance Armstrong who, barring injury or mishap, will accept his seventh consecutive title in Paris on Sunday.
The 180.5-kilometre sixteenth stage from Mourenx-Pau took the peloton over the formidable Col d'Aubisque, which climbs 16.5km at an average gradient of seven per cent, and represented the last chance for the American's rivals to mount a serious challenge.
However, a few quixotic charges by T-Mobile's Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov aside, Armstrong and his Discovery team-mates exerted complete control over a timid peloton.
The Texan will head east today and then head north for the French capital, knowing the worst of the road is behind him.
He is two minutes 46 seconds clear of the Italian Ivan Basso in second place, a lead which is unlikely to be reduced significantly in the coming days and could even be increased in Saturday's time trial.
Yesterday's stage was taken by Phonak rider Oscar Pereiro, of Spain, who won a four-man sprint ahead of Cadel Evans, Eddy Mazzoleni and Xabier Zandio.
Pereiro described the victory as his "life's dream" and, with the quartet finishing more than three minutes ahead of the peloton, he moved up from 24th to 17th overall.
Australian Evans, who had led the breakaway up the Aubisque, also benefited to the tune of a four-place improvement to seventh in the general classification.
Evans and the rest of his compatriots rode with black armbands yesterday as a mark of respect for the Australian women's team rider Amy Gillett who was killed on Monday in a training accident in Germany.
A poetic tribute would have been a stage win for Evans. Although he could not manage that, he could be proud of a brave day's riding in which he mounted the Aubisque first.
Asked about Gillett, an exhausted Evans said: "I have no words to compensate their losses."
Behind him, Armstrong's progress was close to serene.
The extent of his dominance is demonstrated by the fact that Jan Ullrich was, according to Armstrong, more intent on taking time out of the Dane Michael Rasmussen, who is in third place, as well as the King of the Mountains' jersey.
Ullrich was supposed to be the biggest danger to the American's pursuit of a seventh victory so, if the summit of the German's ambitions is to be on the final podium, Armstrong can enjoy a gentle ride into retirement.
The Texan was willing to contemplate the final stage when the peloton races on the Champs Elysees. He has not won a stage yet but ruled out anything daring in Paris.
He said: "That's a special day for everybody. Everybody in the race will be attacking and the Champs Elysees is not an easy stage so I suspect I'll be happy to stay in the bunch and get there safely."
As an example of the unexpected risks which await riders in the Tour de France, Andrey Kashechkin, of Credit Agricole and Kazakhstan, had to receive treatment on the move for a bloody nose.
He had been smacked in the face by a fan's 'thunder-stick' - one of the hollow tubes which make a noise when hit together, thousands of which have been given out by the Tour caravan during the last three weeks.
In an extraordinary moment, Kashechkin pedalled down the hill against the peloton to remonstrate with the spectator and said: "I still can't understand what happened. I was busy riding and I suddenly felt a strong blow on my nose. I wanted to go back down the hill because I wanted to ask the fans what they were doing. It could have been very dangerous."