For seven years Bruyneel has set the same template for success: Have Armstrong take the lead in the first time trial. Keep him safe in the early, flat stages. Then, on the final climb of the first mountain stage, sic him on his rivals. Of course Armstrong does not redline his engine at the valley floor. Rather, he tucks in behind a line of teammates, who take turns spending themselves on his behalf.
They take their turns in ascending order of strength. "We want the speed to constantly accelerate," says Armstrong. "We want to be shedding [rivals]." Discovery's mountain goats are sustained by periodic radio updates from Bruyneel in the team car (Life of Reilly, page 88): "Vino is dropped!... Landis is dropped! ... Ullrich has cracked! Great job, boys. Keep it going!"
It is the team's custom to watch French TV between 10 and 11 p.m. for a replay of the day's highlights. "The boys like to see the amount of suffering they were dealing out," says Armstrong. "It's good for morale."
Morale was excellent on the night of July 12. That day marked the Tour's first Alpine stage, which ended after the 22.2-kilometer (13.8-mile) ascent of a bear named Courchevel. At the base of the climb the peloton consisted of some 70 riders. Then Discovery took over. First came Paolo Salvodelli, followed by Jose (Ace) Azevedo, then Hincapie. By the time Big George fell back, spent, only a dozen riders remained. Yaroslav Popovych took his pull, shedding four or five riders before punching the clock. That's when Armstrong delivered a burst of acceleration none of his main rivals could counter. One by one they wobbled and cracked: Basso, Ullrich, Vino, former U.S. Postal Service riders Floyd Landis (now with Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), all hemorrhaging seconds that they would never get back.
What seemed like a routine day for Discovery had actually been a bit of a scramble. Popovych crashed on a descent before Courchevel and was shaken as he began the climb. Azevedo wasn't feeling so hot. Jose Luis Rubiera, a brilliant climber, had a chest cold. Two days later, on Bastille Day, Manuel (Triki) Beltran crashed and suffered a concussion and had to abandon the race. With the Pyrenees still ahead, Discovery was compromised. Armstrong's rivals took comfort.
On the eve of Saturday's mountain stage Armstrong asked Rubiera how he was feeling. The Spaniard said, "I'm afraid your last memories of me will be of a guy who was sick and struggling." Reminding his friend that they had won four Tours together, Armstrong said, "My memories of you won't have anything to do with this Tour."
At the base of Saturday's final climb, a steep, jagged ascent to the Plateau de Bonascre, Armstrong found himself, once again, without teammates, and with the T-Mobile triad: Vino, Kl�den and Ullrich. At long last, after years of declaring that this would be the Tour in which Ullrich attacked Armstrong, the men in pink seemed poised to actually put a hurt on the patron. Sharing this view was the spectator who ran alongside Armstrong shouting, "You are alone!"
"I looked around," Armstrong said later, "and I thought, We're all alone."
What he meant was, they were all alone in their own worlds of pain. The T-Mobile riders had worked so hard to isolate Armstrong that they lacked the strength to attack on the final climb. It was the Texan who attacked them, and snuffed their hopes.
Then Sunday was dominated by the heroics of Hincapie, whose stage win called further attention to the strongest U.S. performance at any Tour de France. Before crashing out of the race, CSC's David Zabriskie, a Utahan, had worn the yellow jersey for three days. Landis and Leipheimer joined Armstrong in the top seven as of Monday. Chris Horner, an Oregonian riding in his first Tour, was having the time of his life, attacking in the flats and on the climbs. Though the future will look different for U.S. riders in France--not as yellow, perhaps--there will be life after Lance.