For once, Lance Armstrong was happy to concede the spotlight.
Tyler Hamilton, his former US Postal teammate now the courageous leader of Team CSC, won his first ever Tour de France stage Wednesday.
Nobody was happier for him than four-time champion Armstrong.
"I think this is the biggest day of the Tour," the Texan said after the 16th stage. "Incredible."
Hamilton, whose amiable demeanor masks a ferocious will, is fast emerging as the chief subplot as this drama-filled centennial Tour nears its denouement with Armstrong a whisker ahead of main rival Jan Ullrich.
After sustaining a double fracture to his right collarbone a little over two weeks ago in a crash with dozens of other riders, Hamilton has also suffered a pinched nerve in his back, dehydration and a strange incident involving an elevator.
He also took a whack on the sore collarbone from a TV camera the day after sustaining the fractures.
Prior to Monday's 15th stage, the third of the Pyrenees climbs finishing at Luz-Ardiden, Hamilton's bad luck then took a near farcical turn for the worse.
"The day started with me taking a hit from an elevator door on the way out of the hotel," Hamilton said. "I got clocked pretty good on my collarbone. This was not a good omen."
Armstrong, too, has had bad omens thus far, in what he recently called ``a very odd, crisis-filled Tour.''
Two crashes, one near miss, an accidental trek across a bumpy field, dehydration, technical problems with his bike, ill-fitting racing shoes.
Yet, he leads Germany's Ullrich by 1 minute, 7 seconds with just four stages left -- the most crucial being Saturday's individual time trial.
"I've never lost the final time trial in a Tour de France and I don't plan on starting this year," Armstrong said, after finishing 24th in Wednesday's stage in the same time as 17th-place Ullrich -- 1:55 behind the winner.
With both unlikely to attack in Thursday and Friday's flat stages, Saturday's penultimate stage will make or break the race.
On July 18, in the last time trial, Armstrong misjudged his fluid intake and suffered chronic dehydration. Ullrich beat him by an astonishing 1:36.
"Ullrich will be difficult to beat but I know the course, I've done the training and I've got everything ready," Armstrong said.
"I can tell you that I sleep better with a lead of a minute and seven seconds than I do with only 15 seconds."
Ullrich, a powerfully built athlete from the former East Germany, had narrowed Armstrong's lead to 15 seconds the stage following the time trial -- when the Texan looked exhausted in the first Pyrenees climb ending at Ax-3 Domaines on stage 13.
Since then Armstrong, seeking to tie Spain's Miguel Indurain as the only cyclist ever to have won the Tour five straight times, has roared back to a commanding position.
By winning his first stage Monday in the penultimate Pyrenees climb -- Tuesday was a rest day -- Armstrong looked like his old self.
He fell from his bike in that stage -- the 15th of this grueling Tour -- but in a phenomenal uphill charge zoomed past Ullrich, clinched victory, and extended his lead to 1:07.
That margin was maintained Wednesday, with neither Ullrich or Armstrong willing to take risks with the time trial looming.
As the pair maintained caution, Hamilton took control.
Hamilton -- a support rider for Armstrong until leaving Postal in 2001 -- won the 197.5km trek from Pau to Bayonne in 4:59:41 with an inspired solo breakaway.