His team car has darkened rear windows, and he has a bodyguard who is a former kick-boxing world champion. There are urgent calls over the team's walkie-talkies whenever he emerges to take a breath of air before the start: no doubt about it, Lance Armstrong is rapidly attaining rock star status in the Tour de France.
"I call it Madonna madness," says the U.S. Postal press officer Pat Morali, shaking his head in disbelief. "So many people wanting to see him, to sign autographs. We had to hire a team security guard because there was the danger he would trip over. We have to look after Lance."
Older Spanish journalists recall that Miguel Indurain, the five-times Tour winner, would spend so much time chatting to journalists in the start village area that he would begin the race late, but this is not a problem for Armstrong. Not only does he never visit the Tour village, autograph-signing sessions are kept to a brief minimum when he finally descends from the immense team bus – which also has barriers around it – before leaving for the race start bang on time.
The only other fleeting sight of Armstrong is when he makes his way to the signing-on podium, an unavoidable piece of race protocol which ensures the public know their stars will start that day. But even that vision can be partially blocked: every day Thierry the kick-boxing champion and another burly staff member – Morali insists he is only a rather large mechanic – lope alongside the Texan as he rides to the podium, inevitably recalling images of Clint Eastwood jogging protectively alongside the US president's car in the film In the Line of Fire.
"There's not been any security threat," Morali states categorically, "but this is one of the last sports where the public can get close to the riders. Other riders here have security guards and at least one of them is armed. Not ours, though." A similar protective shield has been drawn around Armstrong after his controversial declaration that he is working with the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who is currently on trial for supplying drugs to athletes. Further revelations have followed, outlining the times and places of their meetings.
After initial agreements were made on Sunday evening to meet a small group of journalists for Armstrong to explain his position, the meeting was cancelled just 20 minutes before it was due to take place. Apparently Armstrong was "exhausted". A communiqué was finally issued, in which Armstrong said Ferrari was "responsible for some tests. We have never discussed EPO and I have never used it."
Further down the classifications, Briton David Millar's struggle merely to continue racing with a leg cut badly from his prologue crash took a small upturn. "I slept well," he said at the start, "but it still hurts, and will do for a while." After regularly visiting the team car for advice and staying close to the back of the peloton – not to mention leaping over the remnants of a serious crash 30km from the line – Millar finished 180th, nearly seven minutes back. Meanwhile, the fight to wear the yellow jersey in the first week before the mountains saw the Belgian rider Marc Wauters take the lead. The winner of the 1999 British PruTour was one of 12 riders who moved ahead behind a break of four earlier attackers.
When the two groups joined forces in the narrow Belgian lanes outside Antwerp, race leader Christophe Moreau and his Festina team left it to those unrepresented ahead to lead the chase. But to no avail. Wauters attacked in the final kilometre to seize the stage and a 20-second time bonus that puts him into the overall lead by a slender 12 seconds.
While for team worker Wauters winning on home soil will probably be the highlight of his year, for the favourites like Moreau, the Belgian's success can be considered a skirmish before the main battle to come.
TOUR DE FRANCE Stage 2 (Calais to Antwerp 220.5km, 136.71 miles): 1 M Wauters (Bel) Rabobank 4hr 35min 47sec; 2 A Pretot (Fr) Festina; 3 R Hunter (SA) Lampre; 4 S Knaven (Neth) Domo Farm Frites; 5 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 6 D Bramati (It) Mapei; 7 R Verbrugghe (Bel) Lotto Adecco; 8 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo; 9 M Milesi (It) Domo Farm Frites; 10 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank; 11 P Van Hyfte (Bel) Lotto Adecco; 12 B Julich (US) Credit Agricole; 13 J Verstrepen (Bel) Lampre all same time; 14 A Morin (Fr) Credit Agricole +3sec; 15 M Frutti (It) Lampre; 16 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole s/t; 17 J Kirsipuu (Est) Ag2R-Prevoyance +22; 18 C Capelle (Fr) Bigmat Auber; 19 S Teutenberg (Ger) Festina; 20 O Perraudeau (Fr) Bonjour all s/t. Selected: 180 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +6min 45sec. Overall: 1 Wauters 9hr 40min 17sec; 2 O'Grady +12sec; 3 Knaven +27; 4 C Moreau (Fr) Festina s/t; 5 J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2R +28; 6 Verbrugghe s/t; 7 Hunter +29; 8 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole +30; 9 I G Galdeano Spain ONCE s/t; 10 Julich +31; 11 L Armstrong (US) U.S. Postal Service s/t; 12 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +34; 13 F Brard (Fr) Festina, 14 A Morin (Fr) Credit Agricole both +0.35; 15 S Botero (Col) Kelme-Costa Blanca +37; 16 J Durand (Fr) Françaises Des Jeux +40; 17 J Beloki (Sp) ONCE +41; 18 C Sastre (Sp) ONCE s/t; 19 A Pretot (Fr) Festina +42; 20 J Enrique Gutierrez (Sp) Kelme +0.43. Selected: 186 Millar +13:17. Points (green jersey): 1 Kirsipuu 45pts; 2 O'Grady 43; E Zabel (Ger) Deutsche Telekom 40. King of the Mountains (polka dot jersey): 1 Durand 10; 2 Oriol (Fr) Delatour 6; 3 P Halgand (Fr) Delatour 2. Teams: 1 Crédit Agricole 29hr 2min 3sec; 2 Festina +10sec; 3 Lampre +22. Best Under-25 rider (white jersey): 1 R Hunter (SA) Lampre 9hr 40min 46sec; 2 F Brard (Fr) Festina +5sec; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole +15.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content