TOULOUSE, France - Time for Lance Armstrong to turn up the heat in his quest for a fifth straight Tour de France, except that it's hard to imagine how much hotter things could get.
The next four days could decide the race, starting with today's 29.2-mile individual time trial that ends in a former coal mine converted into a space theme park. Then the riders rocket into the Pyrenees.
It appears there will be no relief from the searing, relentless conditions that have prevailed for weeks in one of Europe's worst heat waves in decades. The accompanying drought "doesn't happen more than three to five times a century," French weather service director Pierre Bessemoulin told the Le Figaro newspaper this week.
By the time Armstrong glides down the start ramp in Gaillac, north of Toulouse, temperatures could be in the vicinity of 100 degrees. Whether he will be feeling the warm breath of his rivals on his neck on a day when he has said he wants to have the performance of his life is another matter.
In the past, Armstrong has used the race against the stopwatch and the climbs along the spiny border between France and Spain to seal the race. This year, the template has changed a little. The first time trial is slightly later than usual, and Armstrong is already in the lead, albeit by a slim-sounding 21-second advantage over Telekom's Alexandre Vinokourov.
"If you looked at the Tours before, almost every time he went into the first time trial, he had no advantage - he was behind," U.S. Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel said yesterday on the eve of the critical stretch. "So I think it's better than before.
"In the past, the first time trial came early and it was always where the first [tactical] decision was made. So I hope we can do the same [today]."
Several of the men who could have hoped to stay within striking distance of Armstrong in the time trial either have fallen out of the race or fallen away.
They include Spain's Joseba Beloki, who is recovering from surgery on his broken leg, and Colombian Santiago Botero, who has plummeted somewhat inexplicably from being a pre-race favorite to lagging in 64th place, more than 50 minutes behind.
Vinokourov is not particularly strong in time trials and is expected to lose a minute or more to Armstrong today.
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