CARPENTRAS, France, July 12, 2000 (AFP) — Race leader Lance Armstrong will be the man the remaining Tour de France riders will be aiming to break in Thursday's 12th Stage, which culminates in the 21-kilometer ascent to the airless aerie of Mont Ventoux.
However, it will be the ghost of Englishman Tommy Simpson that will be in most riders' thoughts as they struggle to reach the summit of the most feared mountain climb in the world of cycling.
For by an eerie coincidence, it will be 33 years to the very day that the 29-year-old former world champion collapsed and died on the climb as doctors took an hour and a half to declare him dead as they desperately tried to bring him back to life.
"I knew he was dead when I reached him but it needed an hour and a half to go through the motions and check everything," Dr. Dumas said.
It was Dumas, who died last year, who exploded the myth of supreme athletes battling against all the elements that nature could throw against them by handing over to the police the amphetamines that Simpson was carrying. A post-mortem revealed that he was loaded with them.
His teammate, Barry Hoban, who was later to marry Simpson's widow, was allowed to cross the line the next day at the head of the peloton as a mark of respect.
Armstrong knows all about losing a teammate as well. In 1995, when he was riding for the Motorola team, his Italian colleague Fabio Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, crashed on a descent of the 15th stage and died of head injuries.
"That for me was a shocking moment...when I realized that the risks we took were maybe not worth it," Armstrong said.
"Fabio was such a wonderful person and to lose him in such a fashion really made me think about giving up the game.
"It's funny but I thought it through again after I got cancer and used his death and my battle with it to turn my head around and concentrate on getting back to the Tour de France," the 28-year-old Texan added.
Armstrong and compatriot Frankie Andreu remain from that team who, like Hoban, were allowed to cross the line arms raised to heaven while the remainder of the peloton hung back in appreciation of Casartelli.
Andreu will have a huge role to play for the reigning Tour de France champion come Thursday.
"Frankie isn't getting any younger—well certainly his legs aren't!" Armstrong said of his 33-year-old teammate. "But he is vital to me and the team in that he has been around for so long and tactically he is a master."
That will be vital for Armstrong as he sets out to at least retain his lead of 4 minutes, 14 seconds over 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich on a mountain where he has struggled in the past and it is clear that he has no love of it.
"It's like a desert or the surface of the moon and at times as you climb up it you feel that there is no air and you are struggling for breath.
"It is a place where if you are feeling good you can distance yourself from the rest but if you are having a bad day you can lose the race," Armstrong said.
He will, however, also appreciate the fact that the weather forecast is for strong winds and cool temperatures—it was just one degree Celsius on Wednesday morning with 150 kph (about 90 mph) winds and that, as Armstrong has admitted, is the way he likes it.
Ullrich, Frenchman Richard Virenque and Swiss rider Alex Zulle must rekindle their morale after Armstrong's devastating performance on Hautacam last Monday and believe that they can do some serious damage to him, but the pundits give them little chance.
Armstrong's mentor and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond was in no doubt that his compatriot would remain unbowed after the stage.
"I see Lance staying in yellow from now until the final stage in Paris on July 23," LeMond said. "Lance has shown how much better he is than the rest. None of them can touch him."
Legendary team director Cyrille Guimard, who masterminded several of Bernard 'The Badger' Hinault's triumphs, admitted it would take a disaster for Armstrong to lose it.
"Only a fall or ill health will see anyone else win it," he said. "I fear that the longer the race goes on the further he will get ahead."