Never, says four-time champion Lance Armstrong, has a challenger snapped this closely at his heels. Close? Heck! At a mere 15 seconds, his lead over resurgent archrival Jan Ullrich is now razor-thin.
Armstrong, already weary in the first of four potentially Tour-deciding stages in the rugged Pyrenees, watched helplessly Saturday as Ullrich powered away from him in the day's final punishing climb, eating into the 31-year-old Texan's dwindling overall lead.
After Saturday's 13th stage, and for the first time since Armstrong's first Tour triumph in 1999, cycling's showcase race was roaring into its final week too close to call.
Ullrich, looking almost fresh while Armstrong looked haggard, zoomed away in a dramatic last 9.1km climb to the ski resort of Ax-3 Domaines, high in the Pyrenees separating France and Spain.
Finishing second behind Spanish winner Carlos Sastre, the 1997 Tour champion said his next aim was to take the overall leader's jersey off Armstrong's back.
"I'm going to try to take the yellow jersey tomorrow, I'll see how I feel, and if all goes well, I'll do the maximum," Ullrich, runner-up to Armstrong in 2000 and 2001, said through a translator on France-2 television.
For his part, Armstrong said the 29-year-old German "looks to be riding great, better and better every day."
Faced with his challenge, "I'm just going to ride my rhythm and not let him get too far," said Armstrong, who is targeting Spanish great Miguel Indurain's record of five successive Tour wins.
Never has the Tour been so close at this stage since Armstrong first won. While Armstrong appears to be struggling, Ullrich seems to be gaining strength and confidence. He dominated a time trial on Friday, clawing back a whopping 1 minute and 36 seconds from second-placed Armstrong.
On Saturday, Ullrich got another 19 precious seconds back from fourth-placed Armstrong, leaving him just 15 seconds behind the Texan overall with seven days of racing left to the finish in Paris on July 27.
Racing on each other's shoulders up the last part of the Ax-3 Domaines climb, Ullrich and Armstrong looked at each other before the German sped ahead, dropping Armstrong as he pursued an attack by Kazak rider Alexandre Vinokourov, whom he overtook. Ullrich roared to the line grimacing with effort, but not looking drawn like Armstrong.
Ullrich "proved he can he attack Armstrong, which is what scared him in the two years when he lost the Tour to him" in 2000 and 2001, said his Team Bianchi sporting director, Rudy Pevenage. Armstrong said he emerged depleted from Friday's time trial.
"I didn't expect to have super legs -- yesterday was too hard. It was a really difficult effort," Armstrong said. "To recuperate ... is not possible in 24 hours, or 20 hours. At the start ... I thought 'uh-oh' it's going to be a bad day," he said. But with three days left in the Pyrenees, "I still have a lot of chances."
But in other years at this point, "I was lucky enough to have three or four or five minutes" lead over rivals, Armstrong also acknowledged.
"It's never been obviously this close, it's a different race, perhaps more exciting."
In 1999, Armstrong led by nearly 8 minutes after 13 stages. But his advantage at that point has shrunk each year. He was 4:55 ahead in 2000, 3:54 ahead in 2001 and 2:28 ahead in 2002.