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Aix-les-Bains, July 17
Return to the mountainsSince this morning, they are no longer the same, and since we must write what they have become in less than a night, we will portray them as tense, nervous, irritable, distrustful and even elusive, which a psychologist would translate into a simple formula: The racers are scared! Yes, from the first to the last, from the smallest to the biggest, from Jacky Durand who still keeps his good mood, to those who have proven themselves in the mountains — Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Roberto Heras and Francesco Casagrande — all are apprehensive of this day that brings to mind a book by Roger Frison-Roche, “Return to the Mountains.” Because, this time, the high peaks are there. We can make them out from the Esplanade du Lac at Aix-les-Bains, where the huge caravan of the Tour is assembled — and it too betrays an abnormal excitement, as if it were sharing the uneasiness of the racers.
As for the rest, the followers are constantly consulting their watches. Turning toward the commissaires, they have aged 10 years overnight. Observing the hostesses: In the hurry of the day, they have forgotten their make-up; and the normally-ransacked buffets they tend to are keeping a nice order that is troubling them.
And then suddenly, everything loosens up. At 10:30 a.m., the peloton leaves Aix-les-Bains; at 10:45, a breakaway forms; at 11:30, on the narrow Col de Frène, the tension rises a notch as we push deeper into the Alps. Who’s this hero on the attack? An outsider, a favorite? It’s 2 p.m. now; the leaders have crossed the Col de la Madeleine, rated above-category, and are approaching the Glandon. At the rate things are going, the traditional but terrible ascent of L’Alpe d’Huez will begin around 4 p.m.