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 Crit�rium du Dauphin� Lib�r�. 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 Dauphin� 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 Dauphin�, then sharpen their form.
What did this year's Dauphin� 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 Dauphin�, 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 Dauphin� 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 Dauphin�'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 Dauphin� 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 Dauphin�, 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.