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He went into the Annecy time trial sitting fourth, behind Contador and the Schlecks. Should he pull back enough seconds in the TT to regain third place, Armstrong was asked, how big a cushion would he need to keep the Schlecks at bay on Saturday? The next-to-last stage would go up the mountain known as the Giant of Provence.
"One second," he replied.
"One second?" he was asked by a skeptic. "As well as they're climbing?"
"Trust me," he said. "I've been letting them go, when I'm sitting there feeling good. That's not gonna happen on the Ventoux."
Mont Ventoux is not so spectacular as it is sinister: an ominous, anomalous hump of cretaceous rock rising 6,273 feet above Provence. After baking riders on its early slopes, it climbs past the tree line, subjecting the peloton to a scene out of Mordor: vast fields of dun-colored scree, and no shelter from wind or sun.
The Giant of Provence is so nasty that Tour organizers use it sparingly: Last Saturday was only its 14th appearance since 1951. Armstrong never won here, although he did soft-pedal the final meters in 2000, gifting the stage to the late Marco Pantani, who took the win, then had the cheek to complain that Armstrong had patronized him.
Now the Ventoux would determine whether Armstrong, who had moved up to third and built a 38-second lead on Frank Schleck in the previous two stages, would mount the podium in his comeback Tour. The Schlecks weren't coy about their tactics. Again and again—eight times in all—Andy launched off the front. Nothing doing. Contador marked each attack with ease, and Armstrong spot-welded himself to Frank's carbon fiber Specialized frame. "It was kind of simple," Armstrong said. "Follow Frank Schleck, and I had the legs to do that."
As the mountaintop's rocket-shaped tower grew larger, it became apparent that Frank and Andy were running out of road. The quartet finished the stage within five seconds of one another. Armstrong was back on the podium.
After a visit to doping control, he was hustled through the throng to a car. As it inched down the mountain, he lowered the window to remind a reporter, "Told you, bro. One second."
The next day, on the podium, Armstrong looked a tad, well, intense, and if he seemed to avoid eye contact with Contador, it was because he's still Lance. It became clear, in those uncomfortable moments, that someone's preparations for the 2010 Tour had already begun.