Germany's Jan Ullrich has thrown down the gauntlet to American Lance Armstrong only days before what could be a crucial showdown on this year's Tour de France.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion who is making his return to the Tour after a year of difficulties, has surprised his American rival by firing into second place overall to stake his claim for the yellow jersey.
Armstrong is the four-time consecutive winner but the 31-year-old US Postal rider's bid for the record-equalling fifth win that would make him only the fifth rider to win the race five times is under serious threat from the 29-year-old Bianchi rider.
Ullrich's 15-sec deficit to Armstrong after Sunday's 14th stage has since grown to just over a minute following Armstrong's dramatic resurgence from a crash to win Monday's third of four Pyrenean stages which helped extend his lead.
When Ullrich was asked if he thought Armstrong had gained a psychological advantage in winning Monday's incident-packed 15th stage he replied: "I see it the other way around.
"The onus is on Lance to win the Tour, and therefore the pressure's on him.
"But I can still win, so for me the dream's still alive - no one could be more motivated than I am."
Although there remains another day of climbing left, on Wednesday, the yellow jersey may well be won and lost on the penultimate day - where a 49km time trial will pit the German Olympic champion against Armstrong, who has matched Ullrich for time trial wins on the race in recent years.
But having taken 1min 36sec off Armstrong on last Friday's 47km time trial in Toulouse, Ullrich has a right to be confident.
And his team are said to be so positive about their chances of victory that they are calculating the bonus seconds that can be won on the final stage on the Champs Elysees.
"Up until now I'm very happy with everything I've achieved on the race so far," said Ullrich, who two weeks ago said his main reason for riding with his new Bianchi team was to win a stage and prepare for next year.
"Everything is still possible between now and Paris," he claimed.
"I can win and I'm totally motivated. I've never felt in better shape than I am now."
Ullrich's unexpected rise to become a contender for the yellow jersey is largely surprising because of the difficulties he has faced this past year.
Even before his former team Coast's suspension late in the season after they had failed to pay their riders, Ullrich was in trouble due to positive test for amphetamines from a control taken in June, 2002 while he was out with a knee injury.