Michael Boogerd smiled broadly Wednesday as he approached the finish line, which, at 6,400 feet, is the highest summit on this year's Tour de France route. But the Dutchman kept looking over his shoulder in the race's waning moments, afraid that Lance Armstrong would ride up on his rear tire and steal the stage victory.
Armstrong finished third, 1 minute, 25 seconds behind Boogerd. He pulled up at the end, allowing Spain's Carlos Sastre to finish second.
All Armstrong wanted was to put more time between himself and his rivals. He finished 37 seconds ahead of Joseba Beloki of Spain and Lithuania's Raimondas Rumdas, giving him an overall cushion of 5:06 over Beloki and 7:24 over Rumsas with four stages remaining.
"Beloki and I are even, but Armstrong is out of reach," Rumsas said.
Using a different overall strategy than he employed in his last three Tour de France victories, the American is riding under tight control.
The 111-mile Stage 16 from Les Deux Alpes to La Plagne was another stage that Armstrong opted not to win. Instead, his U.S. Postal Service team controlled the tempo of the main group, setting a fast clip that handcuffed challengers.
Armstrong didn't turn aggressive until the final portion of the climb up La Plagne. By then, Boogerd had secured his first stage win since 1996.
"I'd never dreamed that I'd be capable of winning a stage like this," said Boogerd, who moved to 12th place overall.
Wednesday's stage, with its three beyond-category climbs, was the toughest mountain route. The stage's climbs were made up of Galibier peak (21 miles at a grade of 4.7 percent), the Madeleine (12 miles at a grade of 7.9 percent) and the climb to La Plagne, 11 miles at a 6.9 percent grade.
Tour de France
WEDNESDAY: 16th stage, a 111.29-mile stretch from Les Deux-Alpes to La Plagne, featuring three exceptionally difficult climbs. It was the toughest stage of the Tour.
WINNER: Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands, in 5 hours, 48 minutes, 29 seconds.
HOW OTHERS FARED: Three-time champion Lance Armstrong retained the yellow jersey of overall leader despite finishing the stage in third place, 1:25 behind Boogerd. Armstrong's lead over his nearest rival, Spain's Joseba Beloki, grew from 4:21 to 5:06.
TODAY: 17th stage, an 88.04-mile stretch from Aime to Cluses, featuring four tough climbs. It is the last mountain stage.