Legs whirring, shirt open, a silver chain bouncing against his chest, Lance Armstrong powered up the first monster climb of the Tour de France, fans' cheers ringing in his ears.
By the top of the Col de la Ramaz, at 1,619m where trees barely grow, two riders viewed as threats to Armstrong's quest for a record-equaling fifth Tour title were struggling far behind. Other key challengers, however, clung grimly to his wheels.
Clearly, the road to Paris and victory is going to be long.
Enduring to the end, Richard Virenque of France held on to win the grueling seventh stage Saturday, the Tour's longest and the first of seven days in the punishing mountains.
Virenque, still a darling of French cycling fans despite his involvement in a doping scandal that rocked the 1998 Tour, grabbed both the front-runner's yellow jersey and the spotted jersey for the best mountain climber when he swept into the ski resort of Morzine.
"It's magic," said the veteran 33-year-old rider for the Quick Step-Davitamon team. "I dared -- today was a day for taking dares."
Armstrong was 4 minutes and 6 seconds behind in 15th place. He is lying second overall, 2 minutes, 37 seconds behind Virenque, with 13 days of racing to go.
On the 14.3km climb up to the Ramaz pass, the 31-year-old Texan showed the determination that makes him so feared.
With gray cliff faces towering above, Armstrong and his US Postal Service teammates piled on the pace. Armstrong removed his sunglasses, uncovering eyes almost glazed in concentration.
Behind, exhausted riders began to peel away. Among them: Gilberto Simoni, this year's Giro d'Italia winner, and Colombian Santiago Botero, the best climber on the 2000 Tour. By the finish, both had lost over six minutes to Armstrong, with Botero placing 74th and Simoni 77th.
The 1997 Tour winner, Jan Ullrich of Germany, Spaniards Iban Mayo and Joseba Beloki and American Tyler Hamilton, racing grittily on with a collarbone fractured in a crash on the Tour's second day, stuck with Armstrong.
Ullrich, coming back from a doping ban and knee operations, looks particularly strong. He trails Armstrong by 38 seconds overall. Beloki, the 2002 Tour runner-up, is 32 seconds behind.
"Ullrich is a big motor, he has won here and competed several times," said Muller. "If his knee is holding up then he is one of the main threats, no question."
A key day comes Sunday, with the towering 2,645m Galibier pass.
At 230.5km, with three passes over 1,000m, Saturday's trek from Lyon and summer temperatures that topped 30? C proved too much for seven riders who dropped out. They included Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, the sprint sensation of this Tour, who had earlier taken four of six relatively flat and fast early stages.
Tens of thousands of people lined the route through alpine foothills and passes, turning the stage into a daylong celebration of cycling.
Virenque broke away with a small group of riders early in the day and held on, powering over the Ramaz pass and leaving others in his wake. He raised his arms in victory as he crossed the line at Morzine.
Last year, he won the infamous climb up the Mont Ventoux.