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Armstrong magnifique

LE GRAND-BORNAND, France -- Overpowering in the mountains, now unbeatable in a sprint. It seems there's nothing Lance Armstrong can't do as he rides inexorably into Tour de France history, utterly outclassing his rivals.

With a stunning final dash of speed, Armstrong snatched victory from German Andreas Kloden at the end of the Tour's hardest Alpine stage, pedaling so furiously that his bicycle swung wildly beneath him. And if Armstrong wins his sixth straight title, he will not return to France next year, a high-ranking official among organizers of the Tour de France told The New York Times.

Yesterday's win was Armstrong's fourth this Tour -- matching his best in previous years when he also dominated -- and his third in three consecutive days, allowing him to all but lock up a record title haul.

It also was perhaps the most incredible. Even Armstrong seemed to find his sprint finish hard to believe. A beaming smile on his face, he jubilantly pumped his fists in the air as he zoomed past Kloden, who seemed destined to win until Armstrong edged him at the line.

"No gifts this year," the five-time champion said. "I want to win."

Aside from satisfaction, the victory earned Armstrong 20 bonus seconds that helped extend his already sizable overall lead on Italian Ivan Basso to 4 minutes 9 seconds. Barring disaster, that is more than enough to carry the Texan through to the finish in Paris Sunday to become the only six-time winner of the 101-year-old cycling marathon.

"Sweet," he told teammate Floyd Landis as they hugged at the finish.

"You're the man. Nice sprint. I'm glad you got it," Landis said.

Armstrong's original plan had been to let Landis win. But the chance for a 20th career individual victory in his favorite race was too good to pass up.

Hurtling toward the finish, five riders jostled for position. When it was almost too late, Armstrong hit the highest of his many gears. With a final glance over his shoulder and within sight of the line, he rocketed off in pursuit and found just enough speed to nip Kloden.

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