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Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel tonight both did their best to appear confident that their Discovery Channel team had banished the memory of their scare on the Col de la Schlucht on Saturday's eight stage from Pforzheim to Grardmer.
After safely negotiating the second and final stage in the Vosges mountains, this time surrounded by team-mates, Armstrong prepared to board one of two chartered aeroplanes which will take 175 riders remaining in the race to Grenoble, from where the Tour will resume on Tuesday.
Before leaving Alsace, the six-time champion claimed his Discovery Channel team had "regrouped" after a long debriefing at their hotel in Grardmer on Saturday night. "I didn't put any pressure on them," he said, "just asked a few questions and gave them some words of support." The image of Armstrong conducting a form of group counselling session contrasts vividly with CSC man Bobby Julich's mental picture of the scene at Discovery Channel HQ last night. "Man, I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting," Julich said on Saturday. "With Lance, you can make one mistake but if you make a second, you're out of there."
Armstrong went on to talk about the intensity of a Tour which has clocked up a dizzying average speed of 46.2 kilometres per hour, but which, as Ivan Basso pointed out tonight, has been ridden with an almost permanent tailwind. "It's one of the fastest first weeks that I can remember, and it hasn't exactly been flat either. I think we'll see a major crash in people's performances in the mountains," Armstrong said.
While Armstrong's emphasis on the difficulty of the race so far might alarm some of his fans, Johan Bruyneel's admission that Discovery Channel had been "trying not to defend the jersey for three or four days" could have a similar effect. Bruyneel, though, pointed out tonight that on every occasion in the past six Tours when Armstrong had taken the yellow jersey before the first mountain stage, he had always lost or "loaned" it to another rider. A glance at the history books confirms that Jaan Kirsipuu, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Thomas Voeckler are among the riders to have taken advantage of this policy of laissez-faire.
George Hincapie also welcomed Jens Voigt's rise to the top of the general classification at his team-mate's expense, suggesting that, "It's better that we don't have it because that might make things easier for a couple of days." Armstrong's most experienced and versatile domestique, Hincapie inferred that CSC's pursuit of the yellow jersey might be symptomatic of a lack of focus. When it was put to him that CSC hadn't rallied as centrally around Ivan Basso as Discovery Channel have and will continue to do around Armstrong, Hincapie agreed. "That's true," he said. "They've got the jersey, which was a big objective of theirs, but our objective is to have the yellow jersey at the end of the race."
Hinacapie then explained some of what he believed were the reasons for his and his team's poor display on Saturday. "I think I was maybe too far back when Vinokourov attacked. I was sitting 40 guys back, comfortable on the wheel but when the attacks went there were a lot of gaps and I was caught off guard. There were lots of little things. For instance, Jos [Azevedo] didn't eat. It was a comedy of errors but we're human and we're allowed to make mistakes. I'm glad that tomorrow is the rest day. From Tuesday, we're going t keep on fighting and do what we came here to do.
"We were caught off guard yesterday but we're still the same team," Hincapie went on. "We had a great first time trial, then we won the team time trial but no one even says congratulations. They expect it. Then, if we have bad day everyone writes about it. It's upsetting to us but it motivates us to hear that we're a bad team."
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