Lance Armstrong is breathing easier now.
The four-time Tour winner is exactly where he wants to be: one second behind the yellow jersey leader -- worn by his US Postal teammate Victor Hugo Pena -- with the hardest part of the grueling three-week race still ahead.
In Wednesday's fourth stage -- a 69km team time trial from army town Joinville to Saint-Dizier in the east -- Armstrong and his fellow Postals blew the competition away, recording their first ever win in this speed and teamwork-orientated discipline.
Armstrong, closing in on Spaniard Miguel Indurain's unique feat of five-straight Tour victories, is peaking at the right time -- with the weekend's grueling mountain stages lying in wait.
"I had some problems before the Tour that I didn't elaborate on," Armstrong said after the win. "I didn't talk about them because it's really not important. But I'm getting better. I feel better every day."
With the Postals hogging the top eight places in the overall rankings, Armstrong and his teammates are in great shape to tackle the next five stages, which begin with some modest climbs Thursday and Friday before the first of three daunting alpine stages.
The danger has almost passed for Armstrong -- fortunate not to be seriously hurt in Sunday's first stage when the Texan was among around 35 riders caught in a pileup.
The team's plan in the early stages could have read thus: avoid danger, stay fresh, and clock an excellent time trial to take into the mountains -- where some thrive and others melt away in the scorching heat.
Armstrong will hope to avoid further mishap in Thursday's fifth stage -- a 196.5km route from Troyes toward Nevers in central France. The course is relatively flat with some minor hill climbs -- but none exceeding 323m.
Friday's sixth stage sees the first noteworthy climb.
Riders must tackle the Cote des Echarmeaux -- which peaks at 708m -- before arriving in Lyon, France's second-largest city and famed for its gastronomic delights. Not that Armstrong, who carefully weighs his food and monitors every calorie, is likely to indulge.
Saturday's 230.5km haul from Lyon to the ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz is the first of three days of grueling alpine ascents.
After several medium-difficulty ascents, the riders face two mammoth climbs in the last 20km of the stage.
The Col de la Ramaz, which peaks at 1,619m, is followed by the 1,181m ascent on the Cote des Gets. A downhill dash then carries tired limbs to the finish line.
"I'm feeling better and better," Armstrong said, adding that a modest 7th-place finish in Saturday's prologue and Sunday's first stage crash had dampened his spirits.
"Definitely the prologue wasn't sharp, but in light of the way I was feeling after the first stage I shouldn't be surprised that I'm feeling better now," a calm, smiling Armstrong said after Wednesday's win. As the Postals crossed the finish line Wednesday, they immediately dismounted and then screamed in delight as a swarm of spectators, some waving stars-and-stripes flags, engulfed them.
Armstrong's American teammates, George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, jumped into each others arms and rocked side-to-side in uninhibited exuberation. Armstrong gave high-fives to any rider in the figure-hugging dark blue strip of Postal within range.
"It was perfect, as good as you can ask for," Landis said, sweat flooding over his brow.