The story today is simple: Lance Armstrong is praying not to crash. With just three stage left he looks terrible, all drawn and sleep-deprived. Many of the riders say that the hardest part of the Tour is the time off the bike, not the riding itself. I think that's the case with Lance. While George Hincapie looked loose and happy before the race, chatting with other riders and making jokes in some language that sounded like a composite of Spanish and Italian, Lance looked haunted as he rode to the line. He brightened when a very pro-Lance crowd roared his name, but the smile was fleeting. Lance Armstrong has been all business this year, but never more so than today. He wants to wrap this thing up without incident. Watch for the Disco Boys to ride in extremely tight formation, making sure no one jostles The Man.There was an extremely large Australian coalition at the start this morning. They waved their flags and yelled Aussie chants and generally just looked thrilled to be there. In a touching gesture, many of the Australian riders made it a point to ride over to the barricades, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.The course today is a hilly (five climbs) 153.5-kilometer stage from Issoire to Puy-en-Velay. That's just a little shy of 100 miles. The course is in the shape of a fish hook, with Issoire being the top (we actually backtrack today, which feels weird. The course moves in north-south direction instead of continuing our inexorable march toward Paris). The weather this morning was cold enough that I thought of slipping on a fleece. This is an abrupt change over the past few days and signals that we are definitely moving north towards Paris. One interesting note is that we come quite close to France's only volcano. The Puy de Something-or-Other -- can't find my notes right now is just west of today's course. I had no idea France had such a thing.Thank you for all the emails (and I mean that in the best possible way; my abilities as a stat guy are limited. I can't tell you how indebted I become to copy editors and fact-checkers during the editing process for my books) about Lance and his number of days in yellow. I erred, to put it lightly. Just so you know, Lance now has worn yellow 80 days. Bernard Hinault wore it for all of 78. But the legendary Belgian rider Eddie "The Cannibal" Merckx wore it for 111 stages. Some say he just wore it 96 days, but in the old school Tour de France there were sometimes two stages in a day.Random sighting at the start this morning: Floyd Landis shooting a TV spot wearing the new Oakley radio glasses (or are they a telephone? My wife mentioned something about them on the phone, but I couldn't find an Oakley rep to fill me in. They look sleek); A kid trying to talk George Hincapie out of his LiveStrong bracelet; Jan Ullrich slaloming through the crowd at three-quarters speed on his way to sign in; a man eating lunch at the Bar de Francais, his pet terrier cradled in his lap; and, the Spanish Euskatel team leaning against their bikes in the shade. "I want to go home," one of them told me. "I want to take two days and not ride a bike, and lie on the beach all day."That's the mood among the riders. They're exhausted. Austin and I stayed at the same hotel as Cofidis and Lamprey last night. They didn't come down for breakfast until 9:30 (race start was a wonderfully late 1:30). They walked slowly and had that faraway look of zombies. Their meal was simple and a little bland: mueslix, orange juice with ice, plain yogurt, ham, and croissants. They ate without speaking. Honestly, if I hadn't known they were Tour de France cyclists, those blank stares would have had me thinking they belonged to some sort of cult.The reason I'm so familiar with what the riders are eating is that I ate it, too. You know, my French isn't what it could be. So when the hostess told me in which part of the dining room to eat, I had no idea she was asking me to leave the room altogether (breakfast was also taking place in another section of the hotel). So I walked over to that team buffet, thinking it was for all the guests. I helped myself to a little ham, a croissant, some juice. The riders weren't up yet, but the team mechanics were looking at me kind of funny. It wasn't until I was halfway through that croissant that I figured out my mistake. Ah, well.The hotel was known as the Hotel du Garabit. It was perched overlooking a river, but far beneath an enormous steel bridge. The supports and arches had that same rivet-and-steel look of the Eiffel Tower (in fact, the woman at the front desk told me that Gustave Eiffel constructed the Garabit first. It was considered one of France's greatest wonders until he built the Eiffel Tower five years later). The dining room was closed when we arrived last night, but the staff was kind enough to put a plate together from the kitchen leftovers of the rider's dinner a few hours earlier. So what do the riders eat for dinner? A green salad with cubes of ham and cheese; baked chicken, a large plate of pasta, and just a little broccoli (boiled, not steamed). The food was bland, with no spices or sauces. But it was good, and it was filling. And I never fail to be touched by the extra lengths hotels here go to for Tour de France people. It was really very nice of them to feed us.The food at the pre-race village this morning had no lack of flavors and spices: gnocchi with bleu cheese sauce, some sort of potato and ham dish, and a nice apple and yogurt dessert with a berry sauce. Yum.For one rider to "flick" another (the word has the same general connotation as a more celebrated word beginning with "f") is to extract vengeance. It might mean forcing a crash, it might mean sabotaging their strategy. Lance has spent a considerable amount of this Tour in a flicking mood. Early targets were Floyd Landis and Bjarne Riis. If possible, he'd like to flick the author of that new book about him (no one in the Armstrong camp will admit to having read it, and Lance's comments on the subject veer to the profane). And right now he's trying to flick Jan Ullrich. Humiliating his German rider in the opening time trial wasn't enough. Now Lance wants to see Mickael Rasmussen hold on to third place. Ullrich is hovering in fourth, hoping to move up during tomorrow's time trial. The difference between third and fourth is simple – and symbolic: Third place stands on the podium Sunday afternoon. Fourth place goes back to the Meridien and grabs a shower.A reader yesterday wrote how my personality seems to change quite a bit while I write these dispatches. I hadn't noticed, but couldn't agree more. It's more of a reflection of how the day progresses than any sort of psychiatric condition (that I know of). I don't always sit down and write these in one sitting. Sometimes I'm in the car, sometimes sitting in a hotel or meadow, and sometimes sitting next to some Dutch guy in the press who hasn't shaved or bathed in three weeks and chain smokes as he curses at his WiFi. Sometimes the Tour can be vexing, sometime wondrous, and sometimes a little routine. So that's what you see.Or, like yesterday, I was really struggling to fill space. It was tough. Yesterday's stage marked the first time on this whole Tour when that was a problem. Usually there's something weird going on in the peloton if I get stuck, or some journalist said or did something that provoked a thought (like the poor guy who got so sick on the Pla d'Adet that his clothes were beyond salvage. He ended up throwing them away, wrapping a t-shirt around his waist, then hitching a ride down the mountain with a French ambulance crew; You know, stuff like that). But there was a noticeable lack of energy throughout the Tour yesterday.If my comments wandered a little, it was because yesterday was the first time I caught that same end-is-in-sight the riders have. I was pleased to notice a new air of enthusiasm in the riders and myself this morning. Like I've said so many times, every day is a brand new day at the Tour: new racing, new scenery, new food. At least once a day I look around and marvel that I'm in France, at the Tour. As demanding as all this can be, it's the greatest pageant in the world, and I don't want to miss an instant. Fell asleep last night to the full moon shining in through the hotel room's sliding glass door. The Garabit was lit up (like they do the Eiffel Tower, but which has a more stunning effect in the dark environs of the French countryside), turning all that steel a bright yellow color. Their reflections gleamed on the river. And all was still and silent. There'll be plenty of commotion and crowds in the days to come. It felt like the calm before the storm.Talk to you after the stage.