Armstrong within striking distance

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AP) — Start icing the champagne.

Lance Armstrong cleared his path to a record sixth straight Tour de France crown, overpowering rivals to win the 13th stage Saturday.

His two-day display of dominant mountain riding has all but decided cycling's showcase event even before it veers into the Alps next week.

Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to stay with the five-time champion on the devastating ascent to the Plateau de Beille, the last of seven climbs on a sun-baked, 127.7-mile trek through the Pyrenees.

As Armstrong and Basso rode through cheering crowds along the steep, snaking road, other riders scattered down the mountain, their hopes of dethroning the 32-year-old Texan evaporating with the sweat off their brows.

Jan Ullrich, considered Armstrong's toughest rival, conceded defeat after the steep 9.9-mile climb mined with hairpin turns.

"I have rarely pushed myself so hard," said Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champ and five-time runner-up to Armstrong.

"But after seven mountains and more than 200 kilometers under conditions that should really be ideal for me, I must admit: Lance appears to be unbeatable this year."

French champion Thomas Voeckler held onto the overall lead and the prized yellow jersey — barely.

In Friday and Saturday's stages in the Pyrenees, Armstrong trimmed Voeckler's lead from more than nine minutes to just 22 seconds.

Two punishing stages and a slightly easier one await in the Alps, Armstrong's playground in previous Tours, as well as two time trials.

Two weeks into the three-week marathon, only a collapse by Armstrong, an accident or a huge surprise from the few riders still with an outside chance, appear to stand in the way of a victory in Paris on July 25.

Armstrong used a final burst of speed to overtake Basso at the end of the 13th stage.

On Friday, in the first Pyrenean stage, the placings were reversed: Basso took his first win and Armstrong was second as other rivals watched in dismay as the champion vanished into the distance.

As in previous years, when he launched his victory march to Paris in the mountains, Armstrong said the race wasn't over yet and insisted that, at his age, he is no longer at the height of his powers.

"As I always say, the Tour finishes in Paris," he said.

"There are still the Alps and many dangerous stages.

"My best years were 2000 and 2001," he added, leaving out his dominant wins in 1999 and 2002 and his narrow victory last year.

"The time of being the boss of the Tour de France is over.

"Before the Tour this year I was insecure.

But I think that's what all great champions are.

They're worried about their place, worried about losing their place on top, and that's what keeps them there."

Ullrich, left behind for the second day on the final climb, finished 2 minutes, 42 seconds behind, in sixth place.

He came into the Tour seemingly determined to dethrone Armstrong, but his race ended in the Pyrenees.Ullrich is 6:39 behind.

Tyler Hamilton, another pre-Tour favorite, pulled out of the race with severe back pain.

Voeckler dropped away on the last, brutal climb to the Plateau de Beille, but he was able to keep his overall lead.

It probably won't last long.

"I hung onto this jersey with my guts," he said.