And now -- the Alps


GRENOBLE, France -- Every July since the beginning of Lance Armstrong's six-year reign, the Tour de France has arrived at the foot of the first big mountain stage with the air of anticipation.

Armstrong's rivals look to the harrowing climbs in the French Alps and Pyrenees full of hope and optimism, only to have their dreams squashed under the cruel superiority of the Texan's brute strength.

Sestrières, Hautacam, Alpe d'Huez and Plateau de Beille have been the settings of Armstrong's chain-ring massacres in his storied Tour rule.

The arrival of Tuesday's 119.6-mile climbing stage to Courchevel deep into the heart of the French Alps is no different.

What happens in the ensuing six hours in the climbing finish to Courchevel will go a long way toward answering the fundamental question of the 2005 Tour: Can Armstrong be at his best one last time?

"Everyone is hopeful," said Johan Bruyneel, the former pro who guided Armstrong into the record books as the director of the Discovery Channel team. "There's nothing that can tell me today that Lance will be at his best tomorrow. The mountains will put everyone in their place."

Bruyneel admitted the world is seeing a different Armstrong in what should be his last race as a professional cyclist. Gone is the laser focus and intense pressure of breaking the five-win barrier, one of sport's most hallowed records.

This year's kindler, gentler Armstrong is trying to win the French public over, but will it be enough to win sports' hardest race?

"He is more relaxed, but that doesn't mean he's not focused or motivated," Bruyneel said. "The only pressure he has is the pressure he puts on himself. He's a champion. He wants to win."

Doubts about team

Armstrong enters the Alps poised in third place at 2:18 behind Jens Voigt, a big German rider who slipped into the lead following a strong charge Sunday. Voigt is expected to fade on the looming climbs, and second-place rider Christophe Moreau has never finished better than fourth.

"Now we get to the hard part of the Tour," Armstrong said. "We have 10 hard days ahead of us. This is where the Tour is won."

The opening nine days provided glimpses of the trademark dominance that carried Armstrong to an unprecedented six consecutive yellow jerseys.

So much so, the first week of the Tour seemed to be stuck on repeat.

SuperLance was back for the first stage, delivering a Round 1 knockdown and taking more than a minute out of but three riders in a short, flat, 19-kilometer time trial.

Armstrong's team was back in stage four for the team time trial, which Armstrong's eight henchmen on Discovery Channel won for the third year running. The win put Armstrong back into his favorite color in July.

Then a funny thing happened -- Armstrong was isolated in Saturday's moderate climbing stage across the Vosges Mountains.

None of his teammates could follow a flurry of blistering attacks by newcomer Alejandro Valverde and T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden.

Armstrong was strong enough to follow the moves on his own to keep the yellow jersey, but had he flatted or suffered a mechanical, he could have lost minutes waiting for another teammate or the team car to change bikes.

The breakdown sent ripples through the peloton -- maybe Armstrong could be ganged up on without his bodyguards covering every attack.

"That was the situation we've always dreamed of," T-Mobile director Mario Kummer said. "We had two or three riders attacking and others from different teams. Maybe Discovery Channel is beatable."

Armstrong and Bruyneel held a powwow that evening, analyzing the stage, wondering how the Tour's strongest team was suddenly getting blown apart. The team bounced back Sunday, smothering the action of the difficult Ballon d'Alsace, and seems intent on proving it's up to the task.

"There are no excuses. We should have had guys there. We had a bad day. Hopefully that's all it is," said George Hincapie, the only rider who's been part of all six of Armstrong's winning efforts. "The main thing is to have Lance in the yellow jersey on July 24. That's still our objective and we feel we're strong enough to do that."

Pumped-up rivals

Poor Jan Ullrich. The red-headed German won in 1997 at 23 and the pundits soon after crowned him as the next great Tour rider.

The affable Ullrich has since been overshadowed by the Armstrong phenomenon. He's finished second five times in the Tour -- three times to Armstrong. More motivated than ever to beat Armstrong, Ullrich's Tour start has been rocky at best.

He plowed into the back of a team car on a pre-Tour training ride, with a shard of glass missing a major artery in his neck by less than an inch. Then he crashed again in Sunday's stage, tumbling head over heels into a ditch.
Still, the eternal optimism is there.

"I'm really looking forward to the stage. I'm ready to go," a battered Ullrich said Monday after X-rays revealed no broken bones. "I am going to give everything. We want to beat Lance."

Ullrich's T-Mobile squad comes loaded with talent, including Vinokourov, who finished third in 2003, and Klöden, who placed second last year.

"Personally, I never believed Lance was impossible to beat," said Vinokourov, a blond-haired Kazakh who likes to attack. "We had a glimpse of things we can expect the other day."

Others line up hoping for the best. Ivan Basso, who took third overall last year, and three-time Vuelta a España champion Roberto Heras are putting on their best faces.

Like everyone else, they're hoping for the best without forgetting the lessons from the past six Julys.

"We just don't know what will happen. If Discovery Channel is like it is the other day, I will attack," said Heras, a former Armstrong teammate. "Everyone is motivated, ready to race. We'll know where things stand after Courchevel."

Armstrong has been hesitant about saying too much ahead of the showdown. If the script repeats itself, he'll bounce back into the yellow jersey with a commanding lead that he can use to fend off attacks when the Tour enters the Pyrenees later this week.

"Maybe it's a better story if it's a close race," Armstrong said. "But I'll take the big lead any day."

If he struggles or he's left isolated like he was in the Vosges, however, the sharks will be in the water.

Then Armstrong's last Tour could be his hardest.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain. The author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress, this is his 10th year covering the Tour de France.