PAU, France -- Lance Armstrong simplified his game plan after scaling the last tough mountain of his Tour de France career.
"The big, big days and the big difficulties are done," Armstrong said after 16th stage Tuesday. "Now we have to stay safe, stay conservative and look to the final time trial and try and close it out."
Completing the last of three days in the Pyrenees left just a mostly flat stage, two medium mountain stages and the time trial for Armstrong to negotiate before what he hopes is a final victorious pedal up Paris' Champs-Elysees.
Armstrong set off Wednesday on the Tour's longest stage so far, a 148.8-mile trek from Pau to Revel. Shortly after the stage began, Andreas Kloeden, a German rider from the T-Mobile team, dropped out. He fractured his right hand in a fall Tuesday.
Spaniard Oscar Pereiro won Tuesday's stage, with Armstrong finishing in a group that included Ivan Basso, T-Mobile leader Jan Ullrich and other top riders -- all 3 minutes, 24 seconds behind Pereiro.
Armstrong's lead over Basso, looking to improve on his third-place finish last year, remains at 2:46. Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark is third, 3:09 behind the six-time champion. Ullrich is fourth overall and trails Armstrong by 5:58.
Armstrong was so untroubled during Tuesday's stage, he felt as if he was freewheeling.
"It was an amazing day. Today there was no chain on the bike," he said. "Maybe today was one of my best days. I don't know why, I don't have a real explanation, but I felt totally confident. I felt the team was very strong. It was a great day for us."
Armstrong' main rivals, sensing that their chances of catching the American are slipping away, tried testing him again on two rigorous climbs.
But he brushed off the challenges, easily matching their uphill accelerations to defend his comfortable lead. So, the challengers concentrated on Rasmussen -- who has a nearly three-minute lead over Ullrich and could prevent the German from finishing on the podium for only the second time in his career. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, was fourth last year and has placed second five times -- three to Armstrong.
"T-Mobile was apparently trying to take back time from Rasmussen," Armstrong said after the 112.2-mile trek from Mourenx to Pau. "So they were doing everything they could."
Relieved to be done with France's tortuous Alps and Pyrenees for good, the 33-year-old Armstrong has a clearer idea of what's needed
to seal the race.
"It's always nice to get through the mountains," he said. "If you avoid problems, if you avoid accidents. don't get some freaky illness, a sort of catastrophe, the odds are good."
Ullrich, Basso and Rasmussen will not be pleased to hear that Armstrong is "feeling better and better every day," -- even if he
isn't taking victory for granted.
"The road is open and anything can happen and I know that better than anybody," he said.
Armstrong praised his team -- particularly George Hincapie -- after Stage 16, which featured two potentially tricky ascents: a category 1 climb up Marie-Blanque, and the Col
d'Aubisque, a harder ascent which doesn't have a rating.
"He's a champion in his own right, and he rode brilliantly today. You saw confirmation of that," Armstrong said of Hincapie.
Aside from staying safe, Armstrong has one more objective -- winning a stage. He hasn't won an individual stage so far this
In his winning Tours from 1999-2004, Armstrong won a total of 19 stages, 10 of them time trials. In all but 2003, his shakiest victory, Armstrong's winning margins in Paris have all exceeded six minutes. In 2003, he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.