BAYONNE, France — Along the Adour River, with the breeze blowing Basque flags, Tyler Hamilton rode alone.
At each of the day's six climbs, Hamilton had left behind more of the other 148 cyclists still competing in the Tour de France. He had withstood attacks. He had stood high on his bike and pedaled hard up the hills, then bent over the handlebars, tucked into an aerodynamic crouch to whiz down the hills. Along with the miles, Hamilton had also left behind his pain.
Riding with fierce determination, Hamilton, 32, of Marblehead, Mass., won Wednesday's 122-mile trip from Pau, out of the Pyrenees to the finish line less than five miles from the Atlantic Ocean. He crossed the finish line with his head high, almost two minutes ahead of the next finisher. He pounded his right fist on the handlebar, touched his lips with his fingers, clapped, then flung both arms high in the air.
"It was incredible and incredibly difficult," said Hamilton, who had broken his collarbone in a fall at the end of the first stage July 6.
"I knew I had to give it everything. I really can't believe this," he said after finishing the final mountain stage, the 16th stage overall, in a time of 4 hours, 59 minutes, 41 seconds.
This was his first stage win in his seventh Tour and he became only the sixth American to win a day's race in the world's most famous cycling event. Lance Armstrong has won 17; Greg LeMond five; Davis Phinney two; and Jeff Pierce, Andy Hampsten and now Hamilton have one each.
After Armstrong gave his former U.S. Postal Service teammate a gingerly hug, he paid tribute to Hamilton. "I think," Armstrong said, "this is the biggest day of the Tour. Incredible."
Armstrong was content to stay with the group and not try to pad his 1:07 lead over Germany's Jan Ullrich. With flat stages scheduled today and Friday, routes best suited for sprinters, the 2003 winner probably will not be decided until Saturday's final time trial in Brittany. Ullrich beat Armstrong by 96 seconds in the race's first individual time trial last week.
Hamilton moved into sixth place overall and, with a strong time trial and a bit of a collapse by third-place Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, has a slight chance of finishing among the top three when the race ends Sunday in Paris.
The podium wasn't on Hamilton's mind Wednesday. All he thought about was riding with his heart and forgetting everything else that had happened.
On July 6, Hamilton was one of 35 riders to crash near the finish line. An X-ray confirmed what Hamilton knew. He had a broken collarbone. Reports filtered out that Hamilton, like Levi Leipheimer, another American caught in the crash, would have to withdraw.
Shaking and cradling his right arm close to his body on that Sunday night, Hamilton said he was "probably" finished but he would wait and see.
Hamilton rode the next day but said he'd probably not make it through the upcoming Alps stages. His wife, Haven, and dog, Tugboat, came from the family apartment in Girona, Spain. Haven thought she was going to take Tyler home. Instead she watched her husband labor through the heat and the hills even when he hurt too much to talk, even when he couldn't hold a can of soda after a stage.
Last weekend Haven went home for a few days. Hamilton kept riding. Up and over L'Alpe d'Huez, through the 100-degree time trial, on to the Pyrenees. Hamilton lost time to the leaders -- Armstrong, Ullrich, Vinokourov -- and he lost sleep. Hamilton said he can only sleep on his back since the injury.
And Tuesday night, after CSC team leader and 1996 Tour winner Bjarn Riis urged his riders to push hard for the team victory (CSC is leading the team standings), Hamilton pushed hard.
"Today made up for everything," he said. "Winning a stage in the Tour is fantastic, beyond my wildest dreams. Until now, I had been disappointed because I'd felt, without the injury, I could have been in a better position overall. After today, I'm not worried about that."
Indeed, he had been pegged as a possible challenger to Armstrong's run of four consecutive Tour victories. Hamilton had won the world's oldest one-day classic, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race, in April, and followed that with a strong victory in the Tour of Romandie.
Even a few days ago, Hamilton said, he wasn't sure he'd make it to the finish line Sunday. "I really can't believe it," he said. "Five days ago, I finally felt extremely tired. I thought I was pretty much about to lose it. All the suffering over the two weeks, the stress of coping with my injury, it caught up to me."
Nothing caught up to him Wednesday. At one point he led the field by over five minutes. Near the end, Hamilton motioned for the CSC support car. When it pulled up next to him, he reached over and clasped the hand of Riis in thanks.
Hamilton also thanked Haven, who had come back and forth from their home in Spain twice -- once to bring him home because Haven was sure he would withdraw and, now, to cheer him on to Paris.