The opening Time Trial and the Team Time Trial are over, and Lance is 1.21 ahead of his closest rival. So is the race over? He won the 2003 Tour by only 61 seconds, after all. Well, a lot could still happen. Somebody is going to display dominance in the upcoming mountains. My money is on Armstrong, but I would have said the same thing in 1996 about Miguel Indurain. He ended up cracking on Les Arcs after repeated attacks by Bjarne Riis (who now runs the CSC Team) and finished 11th. Of course, Big Mig never really loved the high mountains like Lance does.
So, the stages:
Stage 9 - Sunday, July 10, Gérardmer - Mulhouse. The next real chance for the contenders to test Armstrong. This isn't a stage for the pure climbers (like Heras at Liberty, or Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen), the climbs aren't steep or long enough. The stage does feature a bunch of climbs, but all are in the Cat 3 range except a single Cat 2 and the last climb, a Cat 1. Good stage for an attacking rider like Alexandre Vinokourov. Could be exciting, could be a snore.
Stage 10 - Tuesday, July 12, Grenoble to Courchevel. This may be the day Armstrong puts the race away. Long flat section, followed by two big-ass climbs - both Cat 1's. It's the mountaintop finish at Courchevel that makes the difference. A good opportunity for the true climbers (Heras, Mayo, etc.).
Stage 11 - Wednesday, July 13, Courchevel - Briançon. Big, traditional climbs: The Madeleine (HC), the Telegraphe (Cat 1) and the Galibier (HC). Super hard day, with a fast run into Briançon after reaching the summit of the Galibier. Time for Discovery Channel to play defense, most likely. Always fun to watch potential contenders drop away (is this the day Santiago Botero loses his traditional 20 minutes?). The next stage is in the low mountains, so watch for a breakaway attempt there.
Stage 14 - Saturday, July 16, Agde - Ax-3 Domaines. Back in the mountains, this time the Pyrenees. Any of the Spanish/Basque riders still in contention will go for it here, in front of their rabid fans. Or they will seek a stage win to save face (the more likely scenario, I think). Watch for riders in Orange. One HC climb in this stage, followed by a Cat 1 climb to the finish. If the Alps didn't go well, Armstrong tries again here.
Stage 15 - Sunday, July 17, Lézat-sur-Lèze - Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet). The stage profile looks like a saw blade. Brutal, but no HC climbs until the end (the finish line on Pla d'Adet, of course). A hard, hard day with a mountain top finish. My favorite.
Stage 16 - Tuesday, July 19, Mourenx - Pau. Last day in the high mountains, featuring the Col d'Aubisque. Look for some of the last big shakeups in the GC.
Stage 20 - Saturday, July 23. Saint-Etienne ITT. The last showdown of the race. If it's close (like 2003), this will be really exciting. Lance likes to win the final Individual Time Trial, to "prove" once and for all that the yellow jersey is the strongest man (as if total domination in the mountains doesn't prove anything). I expect the same this year.
Last Day! Sip champaign in your jammies. Toast Lance a fine career.