As annual dress rehearsals for the Tour de France go, the Dauphine Libéré stage race, a nine-day trek through the Alps in early June, is traditionally considered the most serious. While Lance Armstrong's domination there confirmed his role as the leading actor in this year's Tour, a new, and utterly unexpected face in the supporting cast, that of the tousle-haired Iban Mayo, came within a whisker of upsetting the established order.
After a powerful prologue victory, on every major climbs that followed the 25-year-old Basque tested Armstrong with a minimum of three attacks, and on two occasions, succeeded in building up a 30-second advantage over the Texan before being reeled in.
In the four years of the American's domination of the Tour, for Armstrong to fail to counter instantly such moves in a race which he is determined to win (and often use them as a springboard to blaze his own trail to glory) is unheard of. And for a rider to challenge the American so consistently is something equally unprecedented.
"He helped make it a harder Dauphine for me than I would have liked," Armstrong admitted at his post-race winner's press conference. "He wasn't a factor that I had counted on." In the process of finishing second overall behind Armstrong, and scooping up two stage wins and a host of lesser classifications en route, Mayo also electrified the interest in his potential in the Basque country, the heartland of cycling south of the Pyrenees.
"In the last three months he's now as become famous, here if not more, as [fellow Basque Joseba] Beloki, who's finished on the Tour podium three times in the last three years, and that's basically thanks to his aggressive racing," the cycling journalist Unai Larrea of the Basque newspaper Deia said.
Larrea's presence on the Tour is symptomatic of that interest: despite having a circulation of 35,000, his paper is convinced that Mayo and his team, Euskaltel-Euskadi are worth the strain on their budget to send a reporter to cover the event full-time. The fact that Mayo's team are sponsored jointly by a Basque telephone company and collective contributions from fans in the region, and are very much the home side for his region doubtless helps him in the popularity stakes. Every year, tens of thousands of Basque don the flaming orange colours of Euskaltel-Euskadi and line the Pyrenean cols for mile after mile to egg on their riders during the race.
Such loyalty is understandable: team policy is that only riders born in the Basque country, roughly the size of Devon, can form part of the squad and this ensures that many are close friends or relatives. Mayo himself lives in the same housing estate as two of his team-mates on the Tour this year.
But the Dauphine was not the first time by any means that Mayo and Euskaltel-Euskadi have crossed the American's path. In the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic in April, a devastating attack by Armstrong was reeled in by the collective efforts of Euskadi, after which Mayo himself finished second - and Armstrong, 20th.
Furthermore, unlike Armstrong, whose every move since his private jet touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris on Wednesday afternoon has received extensive newspaper coverage, Mayo has barely received a phone call in the Tour build-up - apart from the ultra-loyal Basque press.
It is symptomatic of the lack of pressure which Mayo feels that he was the only Tour contender this year not to give a pre-race press conference. "In the Tour, I can ride my own race without too many questions being asked," he said. "That's a real advantage." He has others as well: in the two years that they have taken part in the Tour, Euskaltel-Euskadi have acquired a reputation for being one of the few squads willing to fire riders up the road in spite of the blanket control laid down by Armstrong and his US Postal team.
Mayo's "disrespect" for the Tour's patron which he showed in the Dauphine is clear proof that the team's traditionally subversive attitude has been well and truly instilled into him. On the wider stage this July, there is every chance he will try and put in a repeat performance.
Guards on hand as champion turns on charm
By Alasdair Fotheringham
With less than 48 hours to go before Lance Armstrong rolls down the start ramp of the centenary Tour de France, the overwhelming favourite for this year's race showed no sign as yet of feeling the pressure.
Speaking at a press conference yesterday afternoon, the 31-year-old claimed that the only two surprises in his build-up for the Tour "were the crash I had in the Dauphine Libéré" - his last warm-up race - "and the length of time it took me to recover from it". Armstrong still won that race and such has been his domination of the Tour in the past and the lack of hiccups in his build-up that this admission of possible weakness failed to elicit further questioning on his physical condition.
Armstrong was particularly voluble about the Tour itself, saying that it was "a very old race with a great tradition that I have grown to love over the years. It belongs to the fans. I can't think of a better way to spend July than here."
This is part of Armstrong's continuing campaign to win over the French in a year when international relations between the US and France have reached an all-time low. "The fans here have shown me this year they are smart enough not to mix sport and politics. I haven't heard a single anti-US comment in any race," he said.
Armstrong is attempting to become the second rider to win five consecutive Tours, but he has already established one other record of his own. No less than six bodyguards escorted him in and out of his press conference, an unprecedented total for any rider and three times the number that he usually uses.
If Armstrong has a hard time selling himself to the French, and such a high emphasis on personal protection jars strongly in such an open sport, they may well have appreciated his wisecrack concerning the Belgians, traditionally the butt of French humour, slightly more. "One advantage of having so many Belgians in my team's management is that we get to learn Flemish, a very big language in the world," Armstrong said.
Sitting next to the American as he spoke, Armstrong's directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, who is Flemish, did not appear overly amused at the Texan's joke.
Should Armstrong walk the walk in the Tour's three weeks as confidently as he talked the talk yesterday evening any arguments on the relative merits of Flemish and other languages between the two will doubtless be shelved, probably permanently.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content