ANDORRA LA VELLA, Andorra – The Tour de France's most decisive swing is now in full flow, as the vertical examinations and oxygen-starved trails of the Pyrenees claw at the lungs and minds of cycling's hardiest.
It is here, among the mountainous splendor of this wonderful region, that danger looms for Lance Armstrong. The obstacles to his ambition of winning an eighth title are starting to stack up.
Armstrong knows he will have to reach deep within himself if he is to emerge from this section with his chances intact, somehow finding the force and willpower to persuade his muscles to forget they spent three and a half years in retirement exile.
The 37-year-old is not a man who ever lacks for motivation. But if there were to be a time when external factors could infuse him with additional reserves of spirit, it would surely be this weekend.
Saturday's eighth stage finishes at Saint Girons, with the following day's trek beginning at Saint Gaudens, nearly 30 miles away. Between the two is a winding pass that leads to the Col du Portet d'Aspet, a picturesque rise that will forever be etched with cycling tragedy.
On July 18, 1995, Fabio Casartelli – an Italian riding for the Motorola team – died after crashing on the descent at 60 mph when his unhelmeted head collided with a concrete pillar.
Armstrong was a teammate of Casartelli, and the pair had shared dinner the previous night and spoken at length on that fateful morning. The following day, the peloton stood for a minute's silence before proceeding slowly as a unit to the finish line, allowing the Motorola team to cross first, uncontested, as a mark of respect.
Armstrong still had his own plans to honor his friend, however, and decided to seek victory in the stage leading to Limoges two days later – one which Casartelli had been determined to win.
With a devastating late break thanks to a fearless descent, Armstrong crossed the line more than a minute ahead, lifting his head and arms to the skies for what remains perhaps the most emotional stage win of his career.
In recent years, Armstrong has maintained contact with Casartelli's parents and his son, Marco, who was just a baby when his father was killed.
"When Fabio died, it was my worst day in cycling," Armstrong said. "It is something I will never forget, and it means something every time I come to this area.
"For someone to lose their life in the course of doing their job, in the sport they love, is a hard thing for anyone to come to terms with.
"That stage win was something special because of the significance of it, and – even now, when I think about Fabio and his family – it puts a lot of things in perspective. It sometimes hardens your resolve to stay positive."
Armstrong may need all his resolve after being given a firsthand look at the climbing power of Astana colleague Alberto Contador on Friday.
France's Brice Feillu won the stage from Barcelona to Arcalis, in the tiny principality of Andorra, after taking part in a long and forceful breakaway. Yet Contador made the most significant move of the Tour so far, cutting away from a peloton that included Armstrong over the closing miles and opening up a sizeable gap.
Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini, part of the main breakaway, will take over the yellow jersey on Saturday but is not expected to be an overall threat. Contador is in second, having overturned the 19-second advantage Armstrong held over him, with the American now two seconds back in third place.
In his prime, and without having spent three years in self-imposed exile, there is little doubt that Armstrong could have kept the piston-legged Contador within sight on these steep climbing sections.
But now, with seven stages down, the Spaniard is starting to look like a champion – and Armstrong knows the Tour could be won or lost amid these undulating surrounds. If he gets through the Pyrenees with a Tour triumph still a serious possibility, it may owe much to muscle memory, a champion's spirit, and the inspirational memory of a fallen friend.
- Lance Armstrong
- Fabio Casartelli