NARBONNE, France Halfway through the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong has yet to dominate cycling's showcase race as he has in the past.
He didn't shine in the Alps and their monstrous climbs although he rode well enough to take the overall lead. And he's ahead by only 21 seconds after the 10th stage, with another four days looming on the punishing ascents of the Pyrenees.
The talk among some riders as they headed into Wednesday's rest day was that the four-time champion is not the dominant force he once was as he goes for a record-tying fifth Tour win.
''It's perhaps the first time in four years where coming out of the Alps he's left a glimmer of hope,'' said Christophe Moreau, who is 4 minutes, 4 seconds behind Armstrong and 12th overall. ''It's not what we expected. Maybe he'll deliver a knockout blow in the Pyrenees or be knocked out himself.''
Armstrong's closest rival, Alexandre Vinokourov, powered away on the legendary climb to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez on Sunday, finishing second to Iban Mayo of Spain.
The next day, Vinokourov won the last alpine stage to the town of Gap. He is starting to believe he could be wearing the winner's yellow jersey at the finish in Paris on July 27.
''Lance was a bit stronger than me last year. I didn't even try to beat him,'' said Vinokourov, whose stage victory Monday was his first on the Tour. ''But going into the Pyrenees, the gap isn't very big and I am in good condition.''
Armstrong himself conceded after placing third at L'Alpe d'Huez that he's perhaps not as strong as when he won from 1999-2002.
He's hardly had an easy Tour. He battled stomach flu in the weeks before the race, was bruised in a crash on the Tour's second day and struggled Sunday with a faulty brake up the cruel climb over the 8,728-foot Col du Galibier.
Armstrong's race could have been over had he not reacted quickly to another crash. Rider Joseba Beloki skidded right in front of him on sun-melted tarmac Monday, and Armstrong only managed to avoid him by plowing into a field next to the road. Beloki broke his right leg, wrist and elbow, ending his Tour.
''The Tour is always hard,'' said George Hincapie, one of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammates. ''We're looking forward to the Pyrenees. We're in the yellow jersey that's the main objective. There's a lot more competition, we knew that coming in, but Lance is getting better every day.''
It's not the first time Armstrong has started a Tour slowly. Last year, he was second overall, 26 seconds behind then-leader Igor Gonzalez Galdeano of Spain, by the first of the two rest days.
Twelve days later, he won the Tour by 7 minutes, 17 seconds over runner-up Beloki, his second-biggest margin of victory. Armstrong beat Switzerland's Alex Zuelle by 7 minutes, 37 seconds in 1999, when he came back from cancer to win his first title.
And in 2001, he was 20 minutes, seven seconds behind by the 10th stage.
Leading up to his first two Tour wins, Armstrong was well out in front after the 10th stage leading by more than four minutes in 2000 and seven minutes in 1999.
Armstrong's next big day on this Tour comes at Friday's individual time trials, when riders race against the clock. Armstrong, a bronze medalist in the event at the 2000 Sydney Games, has already scouted out the hilly 29.1-mile course that should suit strong climbers like him.
His coach, Chris Carmichael, says that if all goes well, he expects Armstrong to gain 30 seconds over 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, the silver medalist at Sydney, a minute over American rider Tyler Hamilton and more than two minutes over Spaniards Mayo and Francisco Mancebo.
With those rivals close behind, Armstrong said it ''may be the most important time trial I've ever done in the Tour.''
Before Thursday's 11th stage from Narbonne to Toulouse, Mancebo of the Ibanesto.com team, is 4th overall, 1:37 back. Ullrich, said to be a rider who gets stronger in the Tour's second half, is 2:10 back in 6th, just behind 5th-placed Hamilton, who has a 1:52 deficit to Armstrong.
Third-placed Mayo, just 1:02 back, proved he's a danger when he rocketed up the 21 hairpin bends to L'Alpe d'Huez to win the stage where Armstrong triumphed just two years earlier.
The 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche said L'Alpe d'Huez ''confirmed what everybody's been thinking about Armstrong: That he may not be as strong as he should be.''
Armstrong wrote it off as just a bad day and blamed his teammate Manuel Beltran for leading him too fast up the first part of the climb. That was a rare mistake from his U.S. Postal team that otherwise has been peerless.
''He's at least as strong as anyone else, with the strongest team, so I still think he'll win,'' said Australian Matthew Wilson of FDJeux.com, who's riding his first Tour.
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