Lance Armstrong was conserving his strength after today's stage. Tomorrow is a very important day for him (without fail, riders use the term "tomorrow is a very important day" but this time it's for real), and he was eager to get back to his hotel and rest. But he talked briefly about the past week. "It's hard," he said, his face belying an impatience to stop answering questions. "You have to pay constant attention. It's hot. There are constant attacks from the riders struggling for position. No one's throwing a retirement party for me quite yet."Tomorrow's time trial is just over 30 miles long. Hilly. Long downhill to the finish.This week was supposed to be a farewell tour, of sorts. Not that Armstrong expected that sort of warmth would ever materialize, but he certainly expected this week to be easier. Instead, Tour officials designed a course that demands a vigorous stage each and every day. Their hope was to avoid a farewell tour to the Tour (though if Armstrong was French the course might have been juggled to suit that sort of bon voyage). "Am I sad?" Armstrong said about the final days of his cycling career. "No. There's just too much for me to be thinking about. I don't have time to be sad. There's no time to be sad when you're racing the Tour de France. It never gets easy."Chris Horner of Saunier Duval was all set to do something bold this week – and did, jumping out front with a solid breakaway on Tuesday's stage to Pau. But just when it looked like he might have a chance to win, he had to drop back with severe stomach sickness. Horner feels better, but says it's too late. "Once you lose your conditioning at the Tour, you don't get it back. The only reason the riders can do it is because they're so much better than the rest of the field."Ivan Basso has reportedly signed a three-year contract extension with Team CSC, which would take him out of the running to replace Lance on Team Disco. It was open knowledge that Lance wanted the young Italian rider to replace him. But Bjarne Riis, the doleful Dane who serves as team director at CSC, is widely recognized as a paternal figure with a talent for getting the best from his athletes.The French have a television series called Fort Boyard. Sort of a mixture of Amazing Race and that NBC show where they eat all the bugs, but the setting is medieval fortress, complete with hidden passages and catacombs. Can't understand a single word, but it's pretty cool to watch. Just thought you'd want to know.I just want to say that it's only nine p.m. and I'm already hunkered down in a hotel room. How great is that? Austin and I cut out of the press room early today. It felt somewhat heretic not to close the place, but he has a big Lance feature to write for the coming issue of SI and I've got to start taking that deep breath of introspection before I begin the book. Better to cut out early and prepare us for tomorrow's all-important time trial.Back when I first hung a map of France on my office wall back home and charted out this year's route with a yellow highlighter, the time trial seemed oddly situated. But now it makes perfect sense. The pressure is on Lance to win his first stage of this Tour (and not click out of his pedals or otherwise flirt with disaster). Ivan Basso will be striving to show he can ride like a champion. And Jan Ullrich will be aiming to walk Mickael Rasmussen down to take that final podium spot.I'm pulling for Ullrich.The Tour, by the way, has become a news story. What started off as a very large bike race three weeks ago has become an international gathering. The sports guys have always been here, making the press room a fully-packed and vibrant place to be. I like to hear the different national tongues being spoken, or to walk down the aisles between those long tables and see stories being written in German, French, English, and languages like Chinese and Japanese that have a completely different script. I like the omnipresent bottles of Aquarel water we drink to stave off the heat, the utterly ridiculous piles of stat sheets handed to each one of us after every stage, and even the imperious behavior of Mathieu, the bearded and bespectacled Frenchman who makes that machine hum (last year he earned my everlasting respect when a woman from some radio station began broadcasting back home via her cell phone. Her voice was a shrill distraction, and all of us wanted to hurl that special little phone to the far side of the room. It was Mathieu who did the dirty work, wagging his finger in her face and loudly remonstrating her in the middle of a live broadcast. She stopped. Sucked for her, but I was quite impressed). So anyway, our fraternity has grown from unwieldy to overpopulated since Grenoble. That was expected all along. But this week the reporters have ceased to be merely sports journalists. "Hard" news people have infiltrated our midst. On the one hand, it's rather awkward making space for these people who know little about the Tour. On the other hand, it's nice to see a race like this rise and find a global audience outside of cycling and Lance fans.All this makes me realize that following Lance can sometimes be too easy. He doesn't indulge in train wreck behavior and he doesn't really lose at this race. So though his career has had its share of dramatic moments, (other than the opening time trial, moments that are sorely missing from this Tour, which gives his farewell an anticlimactic aura) Lance's faithful have never had to deal with that moment when he utterly fails at the Tour. But is that such a bad thing? He's setting a phenomenal precedent. Not even Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky (or Ted Williams or John Elway or even David Beckham) had a ride like this.Talked to Chris Brewer of the Lance Armstrong Foundation today. Chris and Lance were diagnosed with cancer just ten days apart. Brewer, a tall and self-confident man who exudes quiet personal presence, says 1999 marked one of the most important moments in Lance's career. "When he stood on that podium," remembered Brewer, "it marked the moment when "cancer survivor" took on a whole new meaning."Here's what I like about guys like Lance and Chris: They exude purpose. The little things don't seem to scare them as much. My little sister was like that when she got sick.Lance knows how he wants to be remembered by the Tour. "It wouldn't be a picture from the race. It would be a moment with the team or the mechanics. Or a picture from a training camp, with just a few guys working hard together in the early season, training together in really bad weather when no one's looking."Right now, everyone's looking – as well they should.