It's a measure of the man that for Lance Armstrong, his hardest Tour de France win is his sweetest.
Staying on his bike while his archrival fell off his, the 31-year-old Texan all but assured himself of a fifth title and a place in cycling legend in a drama-packed time trial Saturday, the penultimate stage of 20 in the three-week, 3,427.5km tour.
Still not content, he said he'd be back next year hunting a record sixth victory.
Armstrong's triumph over Jan Ullrich, destined to be runner-up for a fifth time, capped the most gripping Tour in years. Ullrich slipped on the race-slickened time trial course, ending his challenge.
Barring disaster, Armstrong will join Spaniard Miguel Indurain, Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault and Belgium's Eddy Merckx as the only five-time winners of cycling's most grueling and prestigious race.
Until Armstrong, only Indurain had won five straight.
"It sure feels nice when a guy like Bernard Hinault -- as I stepped on the podium today -- said, `Welcome to the club,'" said Armstrong.
"That's an incredible feeling."
Sensing the Tour was his, Armstrong thrust a clenched right fist into the air and smiled broadly as he powered to the finish of the 49km course from the Atlantic port of Pornic to the western town of Nantes.
Armstrong, who came back from cancer to first win in 1999, said this Tour was "absolutely the most difficult year for many reasons: physically not super, tactically some mistakes made."
"But this close one feels different and feels better than some of the others -- or all of the others. It's very satisfying," he said.
Ullrich's challenge effectively ended when he slipped negotiating a traffic circle, just as he was beginning to make up time on Armstrong's slim overall lead. He remounted his bike but never recovered his rhythm and concentration.
Armstrong, told over his radio that Ullrich had fallen, slowed to make sure he didn't slip, too.
He finished third, one place and 11 seconds ahead of Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion and runner-up in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001. The 29-year-old German came back from two knee operations and a ban for using recreational drugs to be Armstrong's chief challenger this year.
Overall, Armstrong stretched his lead over Ullrich from 65 seconds to 76 -- enough to assure victory but still his tightest-ever Tour.
An elated Armstrong jubilantly tossed a large bouquet of yellow flowers handed to him on the podium -- celebrating after weeks of tension when it seemed at times that his dream of matching Indurain's record would evaporate.
He suffered stomach flu before the kickoff on July 5; was bruised in a crash on the second day and failed to shine in the Alps. He even had to divert into a field in one stage to avoid a crash in front of him by key rival Joseba Beloki, who was badly injured.
"I have dodged a lot of bullets," said Armstrong. "This Tour took a lot out of me."
Armstrong's previous winning margins were all above six minutes.
"This year was not acceptable," he said.
"I don't plan on being this vulnerable next year, I really don't.