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Awesome Armstrong in total control

Armstrong lifted his overall Tour lead with his third stage win of 2004

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Lance Armstrong seized total control of the Tour de France on Wednesday with an awesome display of power cycling to win the 16th stage, a 15.5 km individual time trial.

The American, bidding for a record sixth overall Tour victory, shot round the 21 hairpins on the twisting climb to the Alpine ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez in 39 minutes 41.47 seconds.

Germany's Jan Ullrich produced a typically gritty ride to finish second 40:42.49 with T-Mobile team-mate Andreas Kloeden third, 1:41 back.

Armstrong's nearest rival Italian Ivan Basso, one minute 25 seconds down at the start of the day, finished 2:23 back.

"There was a lot of emotion and adrenaline, this mountain is special for me and for the Tour," said Armstrong who found it a "little scary" with tens of thousands of fans lining the route.

The Texan had to weave through a wall of excited fans on the arduous climb, and afterwards said it had been dangerous.

"I don't know if that's such a good thing for the Tour de France. I don't think it's safe. I think organizers should watch out," he said.

"The Pyrenees were exactly the same so it was not abnormal, nobody was more aggressive. But today you had longer sections of four and five kilometers with people on the road."

Talking to French television just after putting on his 62nd Tour leader's yellow jersey, the Texan singled German fans for their "disgusting" behaviour on the road to l'Alpe d'Huez, although he later backed down in front of the press.

Armstrong, who also won this classic climb in 2001, has trained extensively on the same stretch of road, but said he could hardly recognise it on Wednesday.

Looks different

"As much as you ride a mountain, it just looks different on race day. It was really different to what it was in May," he said. "The only thing I could relate to were the numbers on each turn.

"Every turn I was looking at the number and using that as my reference. I planned my climb that way."

On turn number three he overtook Basso, the only rider to seriously challenge him on this Tour, extending his overall advantage over the second-placed man to 3:48.

"I was surprised when I started to see him. It is incredibly motivating for a rider," he said.

"But I have tremendous respect for him. He's probably the greatest hope for the future of cycling and the Tour de France."

Ullrich, so often Armstrong's main challenger in recent years, was also impressive on the classic climb which attracted tens of thousands of fans to the high-altitude resort.

Armstrong fights through the fans lining the route on the 16th stage

The grimacing German, the 1997 Tour champion, is now fourth overall and in danger of missing the podium for the first time in his seven Tours.

But compatriot Kloeden now looks a serious threat to Basso for the second step on the podium on Sunday.

Kloeden will start Thursday's final 204.5 km mountain stage to Le Grand Bornand 5:03 behind Armstrong who is the first rider to win in l'Alpe d'Huez with the yellow jersey on his back.

But he narrowly failed to beat the late Marco Pantani's record for the climb proper -- the stage started 1.5 km before the foot of the hill -- clocking 37:36 to the Italian's 37:35.

The only slight worry for Armstrong came before the start of the stage when it was found that his bike, which had been designed especially for the time trial, was too light by 180 grams.

His mechanics worked hard to fix the problem and he was finally allowed to use the bike by race stewards.

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