Gerardmer, site of today's start, is also home to the Ironman France triathlon. I can only imagine how difficult the bike and marathon sections of that course must be, as Gerardmer is in a deep valley. Ski slopes and mountain forest rise on all sides. The Tour de France riders won't have to run those hills, but they will begin climbing within the first kilometer today. The stage is short in comparison (171-kilometers instead of 220-plus) but there are six climbs. The angle of repose is not as great as the Alps and Pyrenees, but the pace will be very, very fast. That sort of pace was nearly the undoing of Lance Armstrong and his Disco Boys yesterday. Someone, perhaps Jens Voigt of CSC, will attack early in an attempt to steal the yellow jersey.The key to a Discovery Team victory will be his Spanish Armada: Benjamin Noval Gonzales, Manuel Bertran and Jose Luis Rubeira. They are all talented cyclists in their own right, and on a lesser team might even be the leaders. But they are paid to pace Lance Armstrong up the Tour de France's long climbs. Their actions help him conserve his strength for that moment when he veers out of their draft and attacks the top of the mountain. But yesterday they were unable to match the race's swift early pace. When the attacks came, only Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) winner Paolo Savoldelli was there to help Lance. Perhaps the Armada was tired after a grueling first week (average speeds are way up this year, perhaps helped by a frequent tailwind) or maybe, as Armstrong suggested, they had become complacent.Armstrong is even-keeled in public appearances, but his impulsive temper is legendary. When he said that he wasn't angry with his team after yesterday, take that with a grain of salt. Who knows what he said last night, but the Disco Boys had the fear of God in their eyes this morning.Mickael Rasmussen, the red-headed Dane who rides for Rabobank and bears a passing resemblance to Prince Harry, is now wearing the polka-dotted jersey. This is given to the top climber at the Tour this year. Points are awarded at the top of each climb at every mountain stage, and Rasmussen seems determined to win. In year's past the polka dots were the domain of France's Richard Virenque, who is now retired. France hasn't had a Tour champion in almost 20 years. Virenque consoled that sorrow by focusing attention on the polka dots (although the French have never, and would never, dream of taking it as seriously as le maillot jaune). Now the French don't even have the polka dots to console them. The top Frenchman in those standings is Stephane Auge of Team Cofidis, in tenth place.I spent the night ten miles down the valley from Gerardmer in Cornimont. It's a quiet little town that reminded me very much of the opening scene from Beauty and the Beast. I could imagine Belle wandering down the cobbled square, book in hand, and Gaston emerging from the local forest with the hunt slung over his shoulder. It was Saturday night, and the local bistro was packed. Everyone seemed to know one another, and it was clear that I had chosen Cornimont's favorite restaurant. Called home afterward, at a phone booth without a door that stood next to the town well. It was almost midnight here, and just about noon in California, which seemed very far away from Cornimon.Got up at six and ran down a mountain road that paralleled a whitewater stream. Lucked into finding a trail that spurred off into the woods. A carpet of pine needles and thin shafts of light made for a quiet, transcendent morning run. I could have gone for hours, it was that sort of trail. But the hotel's breakfast closed early and I knew that if I didn't eat there would be no hope for food until reaching the finish (the local markets were all closed for Sunday, and the nearest McDonald's is a long way off). So I ran back, passing a marble crafstman's shop and crossing the small bridge that led me to my hotel.Drove the last half of the course en route to the finish. Tour organizers always offer the press a faster route from start to finish (the "Hors Itinerarie"), but today looked to be just as crowded as yesterday. I wanted to see the people and wasn't disappointed. The gray Citroen broke through the barricades at the base of the day's final climb. Families and cyclists and picnickers and outright partiers trudged up the road, hauling chairs, leading little yippy dogs, holding young children by the hand. Fathers carried coolers of beer on their shoulder, and children clutched homemade German flags (We're in France today, but this portion was once German. They made their sentiments known). When I passed through, it was all a loose conglomeration; no one had found their roadside spot (with the exception of those who had camped all night). By the time the riders make that final climb up Le Ballon D'Alsace, they'll be crowded up against the riders five and ten deep.The Germans like noisemakers. Traditional culprits (party horns, ratchet-like twirly things, and polka music – who knew there were so many accordions in the world) have been joined by those thundersticks the Anaheim Angels made famous when they won the World Series. There's nothing like driving up a narrow mountain road, surrounded on all sides by rabid Germans banging thundersticks, to make a man know the meaning of "annoying."Saw a photo of Lance and the Disco Boys in this morning's French papers. The way they surround him sometimes, it looks like he has a Secret Service detail. Who knows, given rumors about his eventual entry into politics, one day he might.If some lucky rider manages to break away from the field today, the finish will be grueling. The last 15 kilometers are almost all windy and open. The poplars lining the road were bent double.Almost got killed this morning when I was driving into town. Went the wrong way down a one-way street because that's the way the Tour was supposed to go. Only the course wasn't closed yet. I'd forgotten that normal traffic rules apply until it is. In the future I'll be more diligent.After two uninspired days, the press room buffet was impressive this afternoon: a local pasta/beef dish rolled up like a cinnamon roll and served with marinara sauce, bleu cheese, dark purple grapes, green salad, and a rocking local Bordeaux.Talk to you after the stage.