In a number of stages, after his teammates have knocked themselves out protecting him, Armstrong is eventually left alone to build his lead, to crush the best cyclists in the world, as he has done each of the past two years. In 1999 he took the overall lead with a blistering time trial in Metz (the race has three time trials this year, and teamwork is no factor in them) and extended it in the mountains. In 2000 he assumed control with a breathtaking climb to Hautcam in the Pyrenees. It will be a huge upset next month if Armstrong does not again sit up in his saddle on the Champs-Elys�es, arms raised. "I'm definitely fitter than I was the last two years," said Armstrong in Spain. "I am as passionate, as fired up, as happy as I've ever been in my life. And I want to win again because I know what it feels like."
The team, however, will not be forgotten. Armstrong gives away precious yellow jerseys (a rider receives two for every stage he wins) not only to his eight teammates but also to Bruyneel and his assistant and the USPS's sprawling entourage, made up of four bike mechanics, four soigneurs (massage therapists/managers/do-it-alls), a team doctor, team chiropractor and three drivers. The jerseys are framed and put on display in homes from California to Massachusetts to Spain. In Tour de France tradition, the winner refuses his share of the $350,000 prize money and instead instructs that the cash be divided among his teammates and support crew. (The total comes to slightly under $20,000 for each domestique, after taxes.) In '99 Armstrong gave bonuses to each support rider out of his own pocket. By 2000 many of them had cash incentives—tied to an Armstrong victory—written into their contracts. (The riders' annual salaries are in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.) Every day during the race, on the USPS's custom tour bus, Armstrong finds each teammate and thanks him for the effort, looking straight into the rider's eyes. "It's up to me," he says, "to make them want to get on that bike again."
Last July 14, after the rolling, 115.5-mile stage from Avignon to Draguignan in the south of France, a ride in which the field was buffeted by brutal crosswinds, Armstrong heard grumbling among the domestiques.
"It's too tough up front," said one.
"I'm not going to make it," groaned another.
"The guys in the back are getting a free ride," carped a third.
The next morning Armstrong saw a picture in a French newspaper. It showed a panoramic view, with the USPS team spread nine-wide across the highway at an angle, each rider blocking the crosswind for the man behind him, except the front man, a position that was alternated. Behind the USPS riders was a long, single-file line of followers, all exposed to the wind, without teammates. Armstrong put the picture on the breakfast table in front of his teammates. "Look, we've got morale, solidarity and the yellow jersey with a week to go," he told them. Then, with his teammates watching in silence, he tapped the photo, his right index finger landing on the rider in a distant last place, painfully alone. "Think about what this guy has got."