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Chasing Lance chasing history, I'm losing sleep while gaining refuse in the back of my rental car. On Night One -- after Armstrong finished second to Ivan Basso atop a Pyrenean peak called La Mongie -- it took my traveling partner, Martin Dugard, and I five hours to get back down the mountain to our hotel in Pau. The next night, having parted an orange-clad sea of Basques, who delighted in beating our vehicle with their palms and squirting water at us (one hopes it was water), we arrived atop the Plateau de Beille. There, we watched Tyler Hamilton pull out of the race (back pain); watched the great Basque hope Iban Mayo evaporate (the Team Euskaltel star was said to have attempted to abandon the race while on the course, only to be forbidden by his bosses); watched Armstrong wind up for another sprint finish with Basso, this time accelerating to the line to beat the Italian who has emerged as his most serious rival in this Tour.
Rather than sit another five hours in traffic, crawling past sullen locals sitting by their small RVs, taking long pulls of wine from their goatskins while marinating in their disappointment over the sorry-ass performance of Euskatel, we decided to camp on the mountain. Dugard, an author, would prefer if I point out that he did not share the small tent with me: Marty is an outdoorsman who prefers to sleep under the stars. (Note to self: Next year, bring sleeping bag. Even in July, it gets cold in the Pyrenees.)
A few days later I smelled a familiar smell: the acrid scent of my clutch burning as I lurched through a vast crowd up another French mountain. This time it was the Alpe d'Huez, site of yesterday's 13.5-kilometer time trial. The mountain was like a vertical Woodstock, Danes and Germans and Swiss (although many fewer Basques) painting obscenities on the roadways, blowing air horns, enjoying adult beverages. Before the race starts, thousands of amateur riders wobble up the Alpe, just to say they did it. Near the summit on Wednesday was a Danish man with a bullhorn, calling the crowd's attention to the riders, making sport of their discomfort. Up pedaled Steve Madden, the editor of Bicycling magazine, who was approached by the air-horn guy. Cross-eyed with fatigue and in no mood for the air-horn guy's antics, Madden glared at the guy and held up his right fist. Air horn backed off. Nice work, Steve.
Let me swallow my pride and admit this: When you're spending, eight, 10 hours a day driving to the race start, driving the course, driving to your hotel, it's kind of difficult to stay abreast of exactly what's happening in the race. To get up to speed on Tour gossip -- and allay my feelings of homesickness -- I dropped by the Outdoor Life Network trailer yesterday morning, a few hours before the time trial up the Alpe d'Huez. There's something surreal and delightful about chatting with Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, the one-time bike racing Brits whose commentary makes Tour watching on OLN nearly addictive. It was a similar pleasure to meet Bob Roll, the gap-toothed Coloradan and cycling cult figure, who rode the Tour as a member of the 7-Eleven teams and who is uniquely able to explain this race in terms Americans can grasp and digest.
Roll did not seem overly surprised that Armstrong had dispensed with the riders thought to be his main rivals. "When Lance fixes his mind on you, it's like a heat-seeking missile fixing on the tailpipe of a jet. It's not good."
But Armstrong had looked mediocre just 40 days earlier, losing an uphill time trial on Mont Ventoux to Mayo by nearly two minutes. Obviously, said Roll, Mayo peaked too early. "If Lance decided to crush Mayo on Mont Ventoux in May, he could. But he'd be sacrificing form for the Tour."
Clearly, Armstrong has peaked on schedule. Five men have won five Tours, none has won six, which has given rise to the so-called Curse of Six. Winning a half-dozen of these bears has long been regarded as impossible. Armstrong is doing to the Curse what he has done to all his main rivals this July: grinding it into the pavement. Yesterday, with a half-million people screaming at him -- some shouting encouragement, others vitriol -- the Texan took the 2004 Tour de France by the throat, summitting the Alpe d'Huez in 39 minutes, 41 seconds. That was 61 seconds faster than second-place finisher Jan Ullrich, the German who was thought to pose the sternest challenge to Armstrong this year. But Ullrich was dropped on the first hard climb of the first mountain stage, and has been dropping ever since. As of today he is almost eight minutes down to Armstrong.
Basso started the time trial up the Alpe d'Huez two minutes ahead of Armstrong, whose hot breath he felt on his neck two-thirds of the way up the 21-switchback, nine-mile ascent. Armstrong took an absurd 2:23 out of Basso and most of the suspense out of this Tour.
After a three-hour drive to the hotel in Grenoble, we were asleep by two, and up early for today's stage. Four more days to go.
Imagine trying to do this on a bicycle.
Austin Murphy covers college football and adventure for Sports Illustrated.