NOTEBOOK \ Tour de France
American hopefuls: If Lance Armstrong keeps the yellow jersey until the end of the Tour de France, it will complete a remarkable race for American riders. Every stage but one will have featured an American with the overall lead should Armstrong hold on until July 24. "It's incredibly encouraging," Armstrong said. "Even in the early stages when David (Zabriskie) had the jersey, it's another new name that people can relate to." Zabriskie, a native of Salt Lake City, took yellow after narrowly beating Armstrong in a time trial on the first day and kept it until Armstrong took over when the Discovery Channel won the team time trial in the fourth stage. Germany's Jens Voigt briefly took it after the ninth stage, but Armstrong got it back after Tuesday's 10th stage. Armstrong maintained his overall lead Wednesday and shows no sign of slipping up in his quest for a seventh straight win. The Texan says it is essential for the growth of cycling in the United States that other American riders take the spotlight. Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and Bobby Julich also have done well. "Sports live and die by the athletes. It's all about names," Armstrong said. "Cycling needs winners, names, personalities. The more good young guys we can produce the better."
Mountain madness: Potbellied men dance around in inflatable diapers, others carry giant plastic needles, or swill beer as they roast in the sun. At each mountain stage on the Tour de France, thousands set up camp early, packing the snaking climbs in an array of bright colors. They seem happy to wait hours for the briefest glimpse of the peloton. Each camp has its own unique style. American fans wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes, and hold banners like: "Seven would be Heaven" or "Go Lance." The Dutch and Belgian contingents wobble around, pink faces marked by sun and alcohol, a national flag in one hand and a giant glass of beer in the other. "When you are feeling good and you're in the front it is the best feeling in the world," American rider Bobby Julich said. "You are just climbing up these mountain passes, you are able maybe to take in the sights a little bit, look at the crowd and remember things." But it can be a hazardous experience for the legion of press cars and publicity caravans cautiously making their way up. Fans jump out in front of cars, while amateur cyclists hurtle down at breakneck speeds. Remarkably, accidents are rare.
Julich's big mistake: American rider Bobby Julich says placing third in the 1998 Tour de France was the biggest setback of his career. "After I had such a big result I started to put pressure on myself whether I would be able to get back up to that level again," Julich said. "After 1998 it took me four or five years to get over that." Since then, the 33-year-old Julich has not placed higher than 18th in 2001, and finished 40th last year. He abandoned after crashing in the eighth stage of the 1999 Tour. "If I could have those years back I would have preferred to have finished sixth or seventh in the ('98) Tour," Julich said. "And then really been able to prepare for my assault on the next year or the next coming years."