Fighting 36-mph winds on the barren, rock-strewn 6,300-foot summit, defending champion Lance Armstrong and 1998 winner Marco Pantani of Italy conducted a stirring duel in what is arguably the hardest climb of the Tour de France.
Armstrong, who surged ahead in the final sprint, appeared to allow Pantani to pass him in the last seconds of the 12th stage in tribute to Pantani's aggressive assault that broke up the lead pack with about three miles to go.
The Texan demurred when asked about what French commentators called his "gift."
"It's not fair to say that," Armstrong said. "He rode a good race. He was a real fighter today and he deserved the win. It's appropriate a climber like him wins on a legendary climb like the Ventoux."
Armstrong could afford to be generous. With the time bonus accorded the second-place finisher, he increased his overall lead in the race to 4:55 over Germany's Jan Ullrich of the Deutsche Telekom team, who completed the stage in fourth place, 29 seconds behind Pantani.
The 30-year-old Pantani, leader of the Mercantone Uno team, is 12th overall, trailing Armstrong by 10:26.
"Armstrong was in exceptional form," Pantani said. "He proved he's a champion. I know I won a good stage, but there's a lot of road left."
Many insiders did not expect Pantani to start this year's Tour, much less conquer its highest peak.
Pantani became an icon in his cycling-crazed nation in 1998 when he won the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France, becoming the first Italian to win the Tour de France in 33 years.
But his status plummeted last year when he was thrown out of the Tour of Italy for a positive drug test. Based on that and two tests from a 1995 race, Italian authorities indicted Pantani in March. He faces an October trial on charges of "falsifying sporting results" and if convicted could be imprisoned for up to a year.
Pantani struggled early this season and admitted the scandal deeply affected his training and his attitude. He competed in the Tour of Italy again this year and finished 28th, nearly an hour behind the winner. However, he said he is close to being back in top shape at this point.
Mont Ventoux, 62 miles north of Marseilles, had been left off the race route since 1994. Its most infamous reference point is the death of British cyclist Tom Simpson, whose collapse on a broiling hot day in the 1967 Tour was determined to be drug-related.
Armstrong called the climb, a 12-mile incline at a 7.6 percent grade, the hardest of the race.
"I'm glad it's over," he said.
Before Thursday's stage, some Tour riders and team technical directors questioned the ability of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team to help deliver him a second victory.
"The team looks less commanding and unified than last year," said French rider Christophe Moreau.
But Armstrong's supporting cast came through for him on Mont Ventoux, as teammates Tyler Hamilton, who won the Mont Ventoux stage in a tuneup race earlier this season, and Kevin Livingston did the necessary spadework.
Hamilton culled the lead group to 15 and Livingston halved it with about six miles to go. A short time later, Pantani caught up with that pack and took a machete to it, wearing out Frenchman Richard Virenque and leaving a group including Ullrich in the dust.
Armstrong kept pace and finally passed Pantani, exchanging a few words in French. Pantani said Armstrong told him to accelerate, while Armstrong said he was encouraging the Italian to work with him against the wind.
"Two people are better than one and it was important that we stay together," he said.
High altitude has been Armstrong's element and Friday's relatively gentle stage beginning in Avignon is the prelude to three punishing days in the Alps. Armstrong now is being grilled daily on whether he has the leader's yellow jersey for keeps. He has worn it since Monday when he crushed the field in the Pyrenees.
He continues to say no, but Thursday's performance belies his words.