It's hot. The temperature is a humid 85 degrees and the riders are going to be suffering on today's flat 181.5-kilometer stage. The route is loosely shaped like a "u", pushing south down the coast from Challons for the first 60 miles, then turning sharp left and north toward the finish in Les Essarts. The road along the Atlantic is scenic farmland dotted with acres of pine trees, which were planted in the late-19th century to stabilize the sand dunes. The turn inland is green, a continuum of hedgerows and rolling country roads that call to mind the farmland of eastern Nebraska. There's an uphill push to the finish, but nothing remotely mountainous. It is a ride through history, laced with cathedrals and ancient castles. And did I mention that it's hot?This is a day for the sprinters and attack groups. Lance Armstrong isn't going to do anything audacious, nor is yellow jersey guy David Zabriskie of Team CSC. They're a comfortable one-minute up on the field. Barring a crash or supernatural intervention, nothing's going to change.David Zabriskie is a strong climber, but will still work to put Ivan Basso in yellow during next week's mountain stages. It's felt that he's too unsure of himself and not enough of a leader. This is a pragmatic move by CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, but nonetheless curious. Zabriskie, though unknown, has the potential to wage a spectacular war against Armstrong. Basso is strong, but something of a head case, prone to snap under pressure.Phil Liggett and Chris Carmichael are picking Tom Boonen to win today. Paul Sherwen is picking Australia's Baden Cooke. Bob Roll was more interested in talking about the curious French reaction to yesterday's time trial. Instead of marveling at Lance Armstrong passing Jan Ullrich, they feel Armstrong is weak because he didn't win. Either way, Roll feels vindicated that yesterday was a turning point for American cycling. Four of the top six finishers hailed from the U.S.Speaking of that, is there a better second-banana in cycling than George Hincapie? He's the Scottie Pippen to Armstrong's Michael Jordan. They complete each other, even though Hincapie's role is almost completely unsung. There were many on the Discovery Team who were rooting for Hincapie to win yesterday's time trial, just so that he might wear the yellow jersey for once in his career.Despite the sportsmanlike comments about Ullrich yesterday, Lance Armstrong was privately very happy about beating him. Their careers are inextricably woven together, and include some of the most epic Tour highlights in history: Ullrich going off road and Lance stopping to wait, the "look" on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2001, Ullrich's crash in the rain in 2003, and now the "pass" of 2005. Ullrich has always come out on the losing end.Just walked over to the finish area. A local marching band wearing all red is parading up and down the streets, looking very much like the Disneyland band on Main Street U.S.A. The players are all of a certain advanced age, and looked most uncomfortable under the glaring sun (they were also a sharp contrast to the black-clad accordion band at the starting line, who looked like musical Mennonites). The Les Essarts marching band, however, sound great. Nothing like the martial sound of drums, cymbals and brass to beat the summer doldrums.Went for a run this morning, and inadvertently found myself in the midst of the local market day (this comes after last night's local bocce tournament, also well attended). Amid the stalls of fresh local berries, melons and modest bikinis (ironic, as French TV is currently showing a fishing show that features a topless model casually chatting with the anglers as she baits their hooks – no metaphor intended) were scads of freshly caught fish on ice. I didn't recognize the French names of them all –- though sole was easy enough – but the giant lobsters and live crabs were hard to miss. Pretty cool way to ease into a morning run.Speaking of souls, this coastal region is intriguing for its spirituality. The Roman Catholic influence is pronounced, with several towering roadside crucifixes that look to have been in place for centuries. A grotto to the Virgin Mary is just across the park from today's finish. However, even though the church bells tolled outside my hotel room this morning, the old stone church was locked. So was every other church I've seen so far. It seems that the churches exist today as a building on which the locals can lean their bicycles while shopping at the market. Bob Babbitt from Competitor thinks it's all part of a French "what the hell" attitude towards life – no church, no helmets while cycling, and a constant infusion of cigarettes.OK, I know we're getting into red state territory here, but I was also intrigued that Aquarel water features an actor dressed as a priest on their float during the pre-race caravan. He pronounces to one and all that Aquarel is equivalent to holy water. It's all very unusual – and uniquely French. Call it the legacy of Cardinal Richelieu.The pre-race village in Challans featured heaping platters of oysters, two ballerinas on stilts (don't ask), the requisite copies of Le Monde and L'Equipe, those red-clad models from Paris who dole out free black coffee, and slices of soft, odiferous Normandy Camembert. Thanks to the Tour I have developed a deep fondness for Camembert, but the Canadian-made stuff back at Trader Joe's is neither soft nor odiferous enough. Great to be back in France, eating the real thing.Team CSC's Bjarne Riis builds team unity in the off-season by putting his team through a wilderness survival course. That unity figures to be a key ingredient in the Tour's next big stage, Tuesday's team time trial. Many feel the competition will be as much about the duel between CSC and the Disco Boys as between their two managers: Riis and Discovery's Johann Bruyneel.The Tour is funny. You work to the point of exhaustion, drive long hours, crawl into bed at midnight, and wonder how you'll ever manage the strength or enthusiasm for the next day. But the scenery changes with each stage, introducing new sights and smells, infusing each and every day with a wonder all its own. The sense of rejuvenation is organic and complete.Enjoy today's stage. More later.