It was almost understandable that rather than changing, as he normally does, into his US Postal kit when he faced the press after yesterday's stage, Lance Armstrong preferred to keep on his yellow leader's jersey.
The media perhaps needed reminding that, despite the pressure on his lead being raised yet another notch by Alexandre Vinokourov's powerful late attack - propelling the Kazakh to just 18 seconds behind Armstrong in the general classification - the American still remains in the maillot jaune.
"I said before the race left Paris it was going to be close," the 31-year-old American reflected, "but I didn't expect it to come down to this close. Something's not right, something's not clicking, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that I'm not riding as well in other years."
Not that Armstrong is having difficulties as big as, say, double Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni, who was on the point of abandoning on Saturday, his morale and pride severely dented as he lost yet another 25 minutes to plunge into the murkiest depths of the general classification.
Nearly one-and-a-half hours behind Armstrong yesterday morning overall, the Saeco rider fought back to take a stage win at Loudenvielle. Proof of the Italian's ability in the mountains was there for all to see as he outsprinted the Frenchman Richard Virenque and the Swiss rider Laurent Dufaux - both friends ever since they rode for the controversial Festina squad - after no less than seven Pyrenean climbs.
But picking up a stage win in this style, a relative sideshow in the battle for the yellow jersey, was also a reminder of the time when he claimed that he could beat Armstrong. If Simoni has been forced to eat cycling's equivalent of humble pie, others have taken up the gauntlet the Italian threw down in June.
After Jan Ullrich made huge inroads into Armstrong's lead in Friday's time trial and Saturday's assault on the Ax-3-Domaines climb, yesterday provided more evidence of the Texan's frailty when Vinokourov tore off halfway up the long slopes of the Peyresourde - and neither Ullrich nor Armstrong could stop him.
Rather than chase him down himself, Armstrong was forced to rely on his German arch-rival to do the donkey work and control the move, maintaining a steady pace ahead of him in a claustrophobic tunnel of Basque fans, who had poured across the French border in their thousands to wave ikurrinas - the regional flag - and cheer on their two favourites, Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia.
While Zubeldia was content to sit on Armstrong's back wheel and defend his fourth place overall, Mayo, the winner at Alpe D'Huez, was the only one able to cling on to Vinokourov's attack. His orange jersey matched by the orange wigs and t-shirts of the Basque supporters, Mayo had a hard time of it as the Kazakh rider pounded away, opening up a margin of over a minute on Ullrich and Armstrong as the climb wound upwards.
That ferocious acceleration actually put Vinokourov into the race lead on the road by just a handful of seconds, but Armstrong and Ullrich's joint interests effectively prevented the Telekom rider from actually taking the yellow jersey. After Ullrich had paced the Texan to the summit of the Peyresourde, Armstrong, a more adept descender, took over on the front of the tiny chasing group, reducing Vinokourov's advantage to just 43 seconds at the line.
But the American once more let his nerves show at having two rivals within 20 seconds of him overall when asked why he thought Ullrich had been willing to guide him up to the summit. "He's as much of a favourite as I am, so it's up to him to take as much responsibility," was Armstrong's clipped response.
Vinokourov, who crossed the line in sixth spot with Mayo still stuck to his back wheel, was his usual reserved self, ducking questions about the yellow jersey and simply warning that "I haven't said my last word."
Such a challenging situation, with the top three riders separated by less than 20 seconds and just one mountain stage and one time trial left before Paris, is virtually unprecedented in the recent history of the Tour. The closest example probably occurred in 1989, when Laurent Fignon was pipped in a time trial on the Champs-Elysées by the American Greg LeMond, who won by eight seconds.
Armstrong is prepared to take the race to an even tighter margin. "If me and Jan get to Nantes [Saturday's time trial] and I'm 15 seconds ahead and lose it by 16, it won't be the end of the world," he said. "I'll go home, have a cold beer, and then start again next July."
Brave words, but before Armstrong gets to know whether he will be having some liquid refreshment on the front porch of his Texas ranch or his customary bottle of champagne on the Champs-Elysées next Sunday, the three principal challengers for this year's Tour will have to face the climactic Pyrenean stage today, which includes an assault on the 6,000-feet high Tourmalet.
The 17 kilometres to the summit may prove too much for Britain's David Millar, though. He is suffering badly from a throat-and-chest infection and finished nearly 33 minutes back at Loudenvielle. "Words can't describe how I'm feeling right now. But I'll soldier on." Millar said.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly.
YESTERDAY'S TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS
STAGE 14 (St Girons to Loudenvielle, 191.5km, 119.6 miles): 1 G Simoni (It) Saeco 5hr 31min 52sec; 2 L Dufaux (Swit) Alessio; 3 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step both same time; 4 A Peron (It) Team CSC +3sec; 5 W Beneteau (Fr) Brioches 10; 6 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Team Telekom 41; 7 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel; 8 S Zampieri (Swit) Vini Caldirola both same time; 9 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel 1:24; 10 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo; 11 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service; 12 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi all s/t; 13 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole 2:14; 14 D Nardello (It) Team Telekom 3:04; 15 A Botcharov (Rus) AG2R same time; 16 D Menchov (Rus) iBanesto.com 4:31; 17 T Hamilton (US) Team CSC; 18 J Jaksche (Ger) ONCE; 19 F Mancebo (Sp) iBanesto.com; 20 P Luettenberger (Aut) Team CSC s/t.
Overall (yellow jersey): 1 Armstrong 61hr 07min 17sec; 2 Ullrich +15sec; 3 Vinokourov +18; 4 Zubeldia +4:16; 5 Mayo +4:37; 6 Basso +7:01; 7 Hamilton +7:32; 8 Mancebo +10:09; 9 Moreau s/t; 10 C Sastre (Sp) CSC +12.40; 11 Virenque +12:51; 12 Menchov +13:37; 13 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner +15:08; 14 M Beltran (Sp) US Postal Service +15:50; 15 Dufaux +17:21; 16 Rous +19:30; 17 Jaksche +20:29; 18 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel +20:47; 19 Luettenberger +20:56; 20 J L Rubiera (Sp) US Postal Service +24:24.
Points standings (green jersey): 1 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeux.com 156; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 148; 3 T Hushovd (Norway) Crédit Agricole 132; 4 E Zabel (Ger) Team Telekom 126; 5 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole 122; 6 J-P Nazon (Fr) Jean Delatour 111; 7 L Paolini (It) Quick Step 106; 8 Ullrich 83; 9 Vinokourov 83; 10 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 83.
King of the Mountain standings(polka-dot jersey): 1 Virenque 300pts; 2 Dufaux 163; 3 Paolo Bettini (Italy) Quick Step 98; 4 Armstrong 96; 5 Beltran 90; 6 W Beneteau (France) Brioches 80; 7 JM Mercado (Spain) iBanesto.com 77 8 Vinokourov 77; 9 Jaksche 75; 10 Zubeldia 73.
Team points: 1 Team CSC 180:55:46; 2 iBanesto.com +9 min 04 sec; 3 Euskaltel +12:24; 4 US Postal Service +17:57; 5 Team Bianchi 50:01.Reuse content