One of the words Jan Ullrich repeated frequently in his rest-day press conference at Pau was möglich - "it might happen, it could be." As a way of describing his chances of winning the Tour for a second time in six years, möglich summed them up quite nicely - given they are hinged, unavoidably, on repeating his defeat of the race leader, Lance Armstrong, in the opening time trial in the Tour's final race against the clock on Saturday.
But too much has happened in the last three days for Ullrich to be sure of overtaking Armstrong, up against the ropes as far as the second-last climb on Monday's Pyrenean stage, but then turning the tables on the German with a devastating ride to Luz-Ardiden. Ullrich was relieved, he said, that he lost only 40 seconds to his arch rival on the climb, pushing him beyond the minute mark on general classification, but by no means out of the struggle yet.
The proof of Ullrich's contender status could be seen by the plethora of Tour-accredited vehicles double and triple-parked around Ullrich's team hotel yesterday afternoon, most of their occupants having come to hear Ullrich speak.
In fact, it was hard to hear anything at all, barring a distant mumble heavily featuring that möglich word: the half-dozen plastic chairs arranged around Ullrich in the hotel's back garden were swamped by the 200 or so media present, the vast majority battling it out with privet hedges, palm trees and even a couple of giant cacti to get within earshot.
If Ullrich does win, it will represent a similar triumph of improvisation and the makeshift over the meticulously controlled and prepared US Postal team and their leader, Armstrong, given that as little as six weeks ago Ullrich's team, Bianchi, was barely more than a name in the register of cycling's governing body, the UCI.
Bianchi were re-formed in mid-June at top speed around the remnants of his first 2003 team, Coast, suspended because of bankruptcy, and the German rider admitted again yesterday that his Tour preparation "had not been ideal". "Nor was the first week of the Tour, actually," he revealed. "I was so ill with gastroenteritis on stage four I wanted to quit." A quiet word with his fiery director, Rudy Pevenage, convinced the German to continue.
"My only idea prior to the start had been to take a stage," Ullrich mused. "Now anything is possible. But I've never been so hungry for victory and never so close to Armstrong, either." At the same time, he appeared relaxed, even cracking a couple of rather Teutonically orientated jokes. Asked how fast he would have to go on Saturday to beat Armstrong, he responded: "I don't know. You work it out." The German reporters, at least, seemed to find this funny.
"The pressure is all on Armstrong now, because he is obliged to win, while I may," - Ullrich concluded, using that möglich word yet again - "win". In stark contrast, there were no declarations from Lance Armstrong, the four long rows of chairs laid out for a possible race-leader's conference in the elegant Pau Casino remaining empty.
Few would disagree with his directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, that if Armstrong wins, "it will be better because it will leave a different taste in the mouth. And on Luz-Ardiden we could see the old Lance was back. His problems are over. He's now just waiting for the final time trial."
For Britain's David Millar, the 49-kilometre lone effort that will decide the Tour is his new target following severe bronchitis. "He was vomiting all day on Monday's stage, but today [Tuesday] he could do some training," Bernard Quilfenhis, his manager, said. "I think we'll be looking at a top-five place on Saturday. He's really optimistic."
Saturday will also represent the final pre-Paris hurdle for Tyler Hamilton, nursing a broken collarbone since stage one and now suffering from "an accumulation of fatigue that I'm finding hard to fight". Seventh overall, the CSC leader is determined not only to finish but also to help his squad defend their lead in the teams classification.
But the odds are that between here and Paris, most eyes will be on a different American.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
TOUR DE FRANCE STANDINGS
OVERALL (yellow jersey)
1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service 65hr 36min 23sec
2 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi +1min 7sec
3 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Team Telekom +2:45
4 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel +5:16
5 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel +5:25
6 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo +8:08
7 T Hamilton (US) Team CSC +9:02
8 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole +11:09
9 F Mancebo (Sp) ibanesto.com +16.05
10 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC +16.12
11 D Menchov (Rus) iBanesto.com +17:09
12 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner +18:52
13 M Beltran (Sp) US Postal +19:34
14 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step +22:00
15 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel +24:19
16 J Jaksche (Ger) ONCE +24:59; 17 D Rous (Fr) Brioches +26:50; 18 P Luettenberger (Aut) CSC +26:52; 19 J L Rubiera (Sp) US Postal Service +27:59; 20 L Dufaux (Swit) Alessio +28:57. Selected: 39 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +1hr 24min 40sec.
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS (polka-dot jersey)
1 Virenque 318pts
2 Dufaux 177
3 Armstrong 167
4 Mayo 130
5 Zubeldia 125
POINTS (green jersey)
1 B Cooke (Aus) FDjeux.com 156pts
2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 148
3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 134
4 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 126
5 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole 122
UNDER 25 (white jersey)
1 Menchov 65hr 53min 32sec
2 M Astarloza (Sp) AG2R +42min 33sec
3 J M Mercado (Sp) Banesto +43.40
1 Team CSC 194hr 34min 02sec
2 Euskaltel +6min 58sec
3 US Postal Service +14.08