Armstrong picking off rivals one by one

Lance Armstrong is closing in on his fourth-consecutive Tour de France victory, but this year he's doing it one day at a time.

In his three previous Tour victories, Armstrong won by checkmate early in the three-week chess match on wheels. This year -- with less than a week before cycling's greatest race ends Sunday in Paris -- Armstrong is picking his rivals off one by one.

Hautacam, Alpe d'Huez and Sestrieres are climbs synonymous with Armstrong's first three victories. So far this year, there hasn't been the dramatic exclamation mark of a long, exciting attack.

Instead, Armstrong is playing the patient hand, grabbing time minute-by-minute against a dangerous field full of aggressive Spanish climbers.

Armstrong won two stages high in the French Pyrenees late last week to grab the race leader's yellow jersey and dropped his rivals on Sunday's climbing stage to the top of the windswept summit of Mont Ventoux.

"I didn't come here to win Mont Ventoux. I came here to win the Tour de France," Armstrong said after finishing third in Sunday's 14th stage. "We have to remember that."

Standing between Armstrong and his annual lovefest in Paris are three more difficult climbing days in the French Alps. But his opponents know the race is on for second place.

"Armstrong is clearly at another level," said Raimondas Rumsas, a strong Lithuanian on the Lampre team sitting third overall. "He will win if things stay the same in the mountains. We will keep fighting, just in case he has a bad day."

Armstrong is more than four minutes ahead of second-place Joseba Beloki and now can ride on the defensive to protect his lead all the way to Paris.

"I think the smart thing to do is to be conservative in the Alps," Armstrong said. "The Tour is not a race to win by as many minutes as possible. It's a race just to win. There is no need to be aggressive."

There are six difficult climbing stages in this year's Tour. Armstrong has won two out of three midway through the battle of the mountains. Armstrong won last week at La Mongie and Plateau de Beille, two difficult mountains high in the French Pyrenees.

On Sunday, Armstrong finished third behind French racer Richard Virenque on the legendary climb at Mont Ventoux and is now 0-for-5 on that particular mountain since his dramatic comeback from cancer in 1999.

"Ventoux is a special mountain," Armstrong said. "You never know what's going to happen up there. It's hard to make up a gap like that, especially to a climber like Virenque. I was going as hard as I could. I tried to win, but I wasn't even close."

Ironically, Armstrong set the record for the fastest climb up Mont Ventoux in Tour de France history, hammering up the punishing 21-km climb in 58 minutes. But Virenque had a seven-minute head start at the base of the mountain after he and 10 other riders broke off the front just four miles into the 137-mile stage.

Armstrong's record pace up Mont Ventoux is 53 seconds faster than the mark set in 2000 by troubled Italian star Marco Pantani, who is not racing in this year's Tour.

In fact, Armstrong is still grumbling over that 2000 climb to Mont Ventoux. Armstrong and Pantani came together across the finish line, and Armstrong actually slowed down to allow the Italian to win. In one photograph, you can see Armstrong reaching for the brake before crossing the line.

Armstrong, who went on to win his second Tour title that year, thought he was doing Pantani a favor by giving him the win. But the proud Pantani said he was insulted by the "gift."

Armstrong said there were no gifts in Sunday's stage.

"I definitely had regrets about that, but I can't change that," he said. "It would have been nice to win Ventoux today (Sunday). It was no gift. Richard rode strong, and he was out there all day long. I didn't catch him."

The dust settled Monday in the lovely Provence region of southern France. Surrounded by vineyards and quaint villages, Armstrong and his boys in blue -- his U.S. Postal Service teammates -- enjoyed their final rest day and relished a relaxing day in the soleil.

The race continues Tuesday with the first of three hard days in the French Alps. Tuesday's monster stage is the longest this year and ends with a steep climb to Les Deux Alpes, the unknown cousin of the more famous L'Alpe D'Huez, directly across the valley.

Wednesday's stage ends with the very difficult finishing summit at La Plagne, sure to be another stage tailored to Armstrong's attacking style and dominant strength in the mountains.

Thursday's climbing stage ends on the flats near Lake Geneva. But to hear Armstrong talk, Friday's up-and-down stage worries him more than any of the big stages in the Alps.

"I look to the stage after the Alps; that is a hard day," Armstrong said. "There is not one mile that is flat. There are seven or eight hard climbs. It could be hot, long. Those are the days that worry me."

If that is Armstrong's only worry, then life is pretty good. The 30-year-old Texan is on top of the cycling world. The much-hyped battle between Armstrong and the Spanish riders wilted under Armstrong's supreme dominance.

But just as Tiger Woods revealed in his meltdown at the British Open over the weekend, no one is infallible.
Armstrong knows that. One bad day and everything can slip away.

"There is no safe cushion," said Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's longtime coach and trainer. "Look at Joux Plane in the 2000 Tour. Lance bonked with four kilometers to go and he lost two minutes or so. If he had bonked at the bottom of the climb instead of the top, he could have lost the whole race. It was the last mountain stage, the last climb of the Tour, and he bonked."

Armstrong will rely on his eight teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team to tow him to Paris. In the mountains, Roberto Heras and Jose Luis Rubiera will set a blistering pace to tire his rivals. In the flats, George Hincapie, Pavel Padrnos and Viatcheslav Ekimov, a 36-year-old Russian, will keep him protected from the wind and out of crashes. Floyd Landis, Benoit Joachim and Victor Hugo Pena will check any dangerous breakaways.

"I can sleep at night knowing I have the best team in the race," Armstrong said.

As the saying goes, it's still a long way to Paris. It will be a little shorter for Armstrong. It always is for the leader of the race.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer from Colorado who spends a lot of time chasing cyclists across Europe. This is his fifth Tour de France for ESPN.com.