He walked at dusk down a narrow street in the village of Morzine, gesturing toward the Alps soaring around him. "To me," Lance Armstrong said, "this part of France, the Haute Savoie, has always felt like Switzerland." After letting himself in a side door of the Hotel Le Cret, the warrior-survivor allowed himself a moment of sentimentality. "I've stayed here, what, 10 times over the years? I'll never be in this hotel as a racer again."
This isn't the end, but he can see it from here. A few hours earlier Armstrong had completed the second-to-last stage of the penultimate race of his career: the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. Having raced precious little this season, and not particularly well, Armstrong had spent the week trying to prove that there isn't blood in the water, that he is still the patron--the boss of the riding pack.
Sweeping through the south of France--last week's race went from Aix-les-Bains down to Provence, then north into the Alps--the Dauphiné is both spectacular and serviceable. With its longish (28.9-mile) time trial and brutal Alpine stages, the eight-day event is a Reader's Digest version of the Tour de France. All the top teams use it as a final tune-up for the big race. With three weeks to go before the Tour's prologue in Fromentine, riders have just enough time to recover from the Dauphiné, then sharpen their form.
What did this year's Dauphiné reveal? That when Armstrong retires from competition after the 92nd Tour de France, which will take place July 2--24, he will leave U.S. cycling in very good shape. Of the 160 riders who started the Dauphiné, only five were Americans, but three of them finished in the top 11. A fourth, Discovery Channel rider George Hincapie, who finished 32nd, wore the leader's yellow jersey for two days after taking the prologue--a sweet reward for Armstrong's steadfast wingman--and won the race's final stage on Sunday. Meanwhile, not only Armstrong but also Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, former teammates of Armstrong's now leading their own squads, shone throughout the week. Leipheimer finished the Dauphiné third, Armstrong fourth and Landis 11th. The Yanks served notice that they will be heard from even after the Texan steps aside.
First, though, he must step aside. After winning his record sixth Tour last July, Armstrong waited an unusually long time--until December--before making up his mind to go for seven. He was clearly behind schedule at April's Tour de Georgia, where his solid climbing was offset by a time trial he now describes as "a disaster." Eight months after blowing up the field in the final time trial of the Tour de France, he placed ninth in the Georgia trial, finishing nearly two minutes behind Landis, a result so galling that Armstrong couldn't resist showing up his rival later in the race. After outsprinting Landis to the line atop a mountain called Brasstown Bald, Armstrong pointed at Landis, then at the race clock, a gesture intended, presumably, to punish his onetime friend for defecting to another team last year.
It wasn't Terrell Owens spiking a football on the Dallas Cowboys' midfield star, but it was, for this relatively refined sport, eyebrow-raising. It was as if Armstrong were stirring the pot to motivate himself further.
He had plenty to ride for last week. Armstrong didn't need to win the race or even win a stage to prove to his peers that he'd made up ground since April. But if he reprised the Georgia time-trial debacle, if he cracked on the Dauphiné's cruel climbs, the message to the peloton would be clear: The patron is wounded.
He is, instead, himself again. With Discovery's utterly dominant performance on Sunday--Hincapie, Yaroslav Popovych and Armstrong were the first three riders across the line--the men in blue sent an all-caps memo to the rest of the peloton: THE TOUR IS STILL OUR RACE TO LOSE. Yes, it is worrisome that Phonak's Santiago Botero gained three minutes on Armstrong during Saturday's beyond-category ascent of the beastly Col de Joux-Plane. For the week, however, Armstrong spent enough time at the front to deprive his rivals of comfort or encouragement. The stream of speculation that he was off-form slowed to a trickle on the first day, when he finished a strong fifth in the Dauphiné prologue. Armstrong expressed satisfaction with that effort, although it surely rankled him to have come in a single second behind Landis. Afterward, Armstrong could not help mentioning that, at one point, his shoe had unclipped from his pedal. The message to Landis seemed clear: Otherwise, I beat you.
Landis responded with a dig that doubled as a plug: "Maybe Lance would like to borrow a set of my Speedplay pedals."
The hopes of Armstrong's rivals were further diminished at the June 8 time trial in Roanne, where Armstrong came neither unclipped nor undone, taking third place while beating Landis by 13 seconds. A day later, on punishing Mont Ventoux, where riders labor past the tree line into a surreal moonscape, Armstrong could not match the acceleration of stage winner Alexander Vinokourov, a combative Kazakh who rides for T-Mobile and will team up with Jan Ullrich at the Tour. (Ullrich, the rider for whom Armstrong professes to have the most respect, took a pass on the Dauphiné, choosing to ride in this week's Tour de Suisse.) Vino pulled away from Armstrong again two days later, on the 7.4-mile Joux-Plane climb. This time, however, Armstrong closed the gap. Though unable to drop Vino, Armstrong did not allow him to get away again.
By now the peloton gossip was that Armstrong might be feigning weakness and conserving his strength for next month. "I'm not bluffing," Armstrong said in his hotel room last Saturday night, "but I'm not killing myself either." He learned a lesson two years ago when he dug deep to win this race, then paid for it in July, barely escaping with his fifth Tour victory. "It's O.K. not to win [the Dauphiné]," he said. "It's better to save the energy, especially as you get older."
A month after being humbled at last year's Dauphiné by Iban Mayo and Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong dominated a Tour de France that those two rivals failed to even finish. Also of concern to his foes: No one improves more in the final weeks before the Tour than Armstrong. "Our training is down to such a science," he says. "There's not a lot of guesswork. You're there or you're not there."
He is getting there. Armstrong weighs 77.5 kilos (170.9 pounds), about a pound from his goal of just under 77 (169.8). He says he must find more "punch" in the mountains. His position and cadence on the time-trial bike, vastly superior to where they were in April, could be a smidgen better. The question of whether he can meet these goals is best answered by another question: In the last six years, has he ever failed?
This year will be different in at least one respect. For the first time in five Tours, Armstrong will ride without Viatcheslav Ekimov, who crashed and cracked his sternum on a training ride with Armstrong this spring. Hincapie and Ekimov have been uncannily effective at getting the boss through the first 10 days of the Tour--the flat, hectic, crash-prone stages--unscathed. There's more to doing that than meets the eye.
"Lance likes to stay in the front without spending [too much] energy," Hincapie explains. "While he wants to be at the front, he doesn't necessarily want to be right at the front. And he doesn't want to be around certain guys"--rash, impetuous sprinters like Austrian hammerhead René Haselbacher, who caused a 40-rider pileup during last year's Tour.
When a team of sprinters takes the front in the final 15 miles, pushing the pace above 30 mph, the etiquette of the peloton forbids Armstrong from stowing away alone with them. However, says Hincapie, "if you have guys like Eki and me, who can stay right next to them the whole time [and pull Armstrong along], that's a huge advantage."
With Ekimov gone, that advantage will be diminished in this year's Tour. On the bright side, Discovery director Johan Bruyneel signed two talented newcomers in the off-season. Paolo (the Falcon) Salvodelli, a tremendous climber coming off his second win of the Giro d'Italia, will help out in the mountains, where Discovery should be very good. The team's other addition, Popovych, a 25-year-old Ukrainian who has placed third in the Giro, is touted as a possible Tour winner of the future.
Landis is underwhelmed. "That's the least impressive team I've seen since I joined the team," he said on Saturday. He had reason to regret that statement the next day, watching Discovery regain its alpha status while he faded badly, dropping five minutes to the leaders. Landis had no way of knowing that Popovych had been told to go easy on certain stages during the week; Bruyneel doesn't want the youngster peaking before July.
If Landis has some tart words for his former team and boss, it's because he's still smarting from Armstrong's performance at the top of Brasstown Bald. Isolated in the mountains that day, Landis lost his lead in the race. Come July, he will be supported by more talented climbers. Sitting in his hotel lobby on Saturday morning, he damn near pulled a Joe Namath, all but guaranteeing a Phonak victory in the Tour's team time trial, an event Lance & Co. have owned for two years. "It's going to be very hard to beat us," said Landis.
Landis finished third in Georgia, just behind Leipheimer, the Gerolsteiner leader who is quietly having his finest season as a pro. The 31-year-old Montanan, who spurs himself during time trials by thinking, I don't want to lose by one second, may need to come up with another mantra. He lost the Dauphiné prologue to Hincapie by a second, then the time trial to Botero by a second. His second place in Georgia--he lost to Discovery's Tom Danielson by a whopping four seconds--now stands revealed as a blowout.
Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself at the Dauphiné. He told French journalists--in French--that upon deciding as a boy to be a professional bike racer, he took it upon himself to learn their language. To say they warmed to him would be an understatement. "It shows his determination," said the reporter from Le Parisien.
Leipheimer's reserve is balanced by the outgoing nature of his wife, Odessa, a knockout former bike racer who made grand entrances all week, sweeping into hotel lobbies preceded by Bandit and Trooper, her sweater-clad Chihuahuas. Odessa, as it happens, goes on frequent rides in the hills around Girona, Spain, with Sheryl Crow.
There was Crow, sitting cross-legged on a hotel bed on Saturday night, leafing through a Pottery Barn Kids catalog--she and Armstrong are building a house in Austin--as he finished an interview. The conversation had been lighthearted, ranging from cycling to coffee beans to Armstrong's future off the bike. ("I'm going to travel the world as Sheryl's guitar-tech guy," he said.) Now, for the first time that evening, he busted out the Look. Leaning forward, chopping the air with his right hand, he enunciated slowly, "I do not intend to lose my last Tour."
To see the Look was to seriously doubt that he will.
Who'll Stop the Reign?
Here are five riders who hope to deny Lance a seventh Tour win
JAN ULLRICH, T-Mobile
ODDS: 3 to 1
The 31-year-old German star is leaner than usual and will ride with two other Tour de France contenders, Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden. They hope to launch separate attacks, isolating Armstrong in the mountains.
ALEXANDER VINOKOUROV, T-Mobile
4 to 1
Vino, a 31-year-old Kazakh who is having his strongest season, won Li√®ge-Bastogne-Li√®ge in April and rode aggressively in the Dauphiné, finishing fifth. "When I feel good," he says, "I attack. When I don't feel so good, I attack."
SANTIAGO BOTERO, Phonak
6 to 1
The Colombian flash, 32, a former track racer who placed fourth in the '02 Tour, was the surprise of the Dauphiné, winning the time trial and the toughest mountain stage. Is this the year he finally puts together three weeks of great racing?
LEVI LEIPHEIMER, Gerolsteiner
6 to 1
The Montana native, 31, who lost two time trials at the Dauphiné by a total of two seconds, has two top 10 finishes in the Tour de France and has vowed to take more risks this year. He could use more team support on the climbs.
IVAN BASSO, CSC
7 to 1
Normally you wouldn't favor someone coming off a three-week race in May. But Basso, 27, is very resilient. Despite falling ill during the Giro d'Italia, he rallied for two late stage wins. The Italian was Armstrong's biggest worry for much of the '04 Tour.