BARCELONA, Spain – If he hadn't made the most significant decision in recent cycling history, Lance Armstrong would probably have been relaxing in Texas on Thursday, a smattering of pudge around his middle and his family by his side.
Despite the creature comforts his comeback has forced him to forsake, and even with a broken collarbone in his preparation for the Tour de France, there haven't been many days when Armstrong has pined for home while on his bike.
An intensity of focus has been the constant thread through Armstrong's career, the refusal to take as much as a softer turn of the wheel for fear it may perpetuate the slightest glimmer of hope to rivals who for so long viewed him as unbeatable. Such a mindset demands constant vigilance and makes no concession to sentimentality, however powerful the reasons for missing home may be.
Yet as the heavens opened to turn Stage 6 and the roads of northern Spain into a sodden passage of tarmac treachery, Armstrong wondered – for a few fleeting moments – just what he is doing here.
"There are not many days when I have regretted my decision," he said. "But maybe that was one of them.
"Maybe I'm being facetious, but it wasn't a lot of fun. There were dangerous downhills and some crashes. The only way to describe days like today is scary."
Those hoping for Armstrong to sustain his bid for an eighth and most improbable Tour triumph know that a critical juncture is now upon the 37-year-old. Rain notwithstanding, this race has been brutal, even for a man with so many thousands of miles in his legs and the confidence of a champion etched into his psyche. And it is about to get tougher.
Astana teammate Alberto Contador is hungrily eyeing his favored mountain stages as the Tour winds its way north, into the Pyrenees, and the American has to hold firm or risk seeing the younger man build an impenetrable lead.
However, there is a group of riders in the peloton – whether they admit it publicly or not – who would not be sorry to see Armstrong fail, to witness his chase for No. 8 collapse on Friday's chest-burning ascent up Arcalis and into the tiny nation of Andorra.
His comments regarding several performers in the 2008 Tour were seen by many as a sign of disrespect, not just to those riders he mentioned but to all who took part.
In a recent book titled "Lance: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion," Armstrong described last year's event as "a bit of a joke," highlighting the fact that Spanish underdog Carlos Sastre finished first and previously unheralded American Christian Vande Velde came in fifth to highlight the weakness of the field.
Sastre is unlikely to retain his title, with his switch to the weaker Cervelo Test Team having hurt his chance of going back to back. He sits in 23rd place, nearly three minutes back, but can be expected to pick up plenty of time in the mountains.
Earlier this week, he spoke out angrily against Armstrong, saying: "There is something wrong with him about respect."
Sastre understandably felt slighted that his achievements were being downplayed, and responded strongly to what he felt were attempts by Armstrong to cheapen his achievement. And even though Armstrong is thought to have issued an apology to Sastre, sources close to the Spaniard revealed he still harbors some ill feelings.
Vande Velde, a Chicagoan riding for the Garmin team, is philosophical about the way he was portrayed by Armstrong.
Armstrong sought him out before the start of the Tour to make his peace and the two reached an understanding, even if they won't necessarily be making dinner arrangements anytime soon.
"He came to me and apologized and I accepted his apology," Vande Velde said. "It is not a problem.
"I think what we all realize now is that it is not just the physical aspect in a Tour such as this one; it is a mental test from start to finish, and there isn't much respite.
"There isn't anyone who could find this easy."
Thursday was certainly not easy, with rain lashing the riders for most of the day. After British rider David Millar was reeled in by the pack a mile from the finish, Norway's Thor Hushovd won a bunch sprint on the rain-soaked streets of Barcelona.
Armstrong remains in second overall, on equal time with yellow-jersey holder Fabian Cancellara and 19 seconds up on Contador. But severe tests await, tests that will decide whether Armstrong was right to give up those home comforts after all.
- Lance Armstrong
- Tour de France