This is unexpected: Halfway through the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong has yet to put a stranglehold on cycling's showcase race.
After 11 days of racing, with 10 to go, the talk among some riders as they headed into Wednesday's well-earned rest day was that the four-time champion is not the dominant force he once was as he goes for a record-equaling fifth successive win.
Unusually, the 31-year-old Texan did not shine in the Alps and their monstrous climbs -- although he rode well enough to take the overall lead. Another four days loom in the Pyrenees. To win, Armstrong needs to be strong up their punishing ascents.
"It's perhaps the first time in four years where coming out of the Alps he's left a glimmer of hope," said Christophe Moreau, the top French rider so far, 12th overall.
"It's not what we expected. Maybe he'll deliver a knockout blow in the Pyrenees or be knocked out himself," said the Credit Agricole racer who is 4 minutes, 4 seconds behind Armstrong.
The Texan's closest rival, Alexandre Vinokourov, is just 21 seconds behind. He powered away on the legendary climb to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez on Sunday, finishing second to Iban Mayo of Spain.
The next day, Vinokourov zoomed away again to win the last alpine stage to the town of Gap. The soft-spoken Kazak is starting to believe that he could be wearing the winner's yellow jersey at the finish in Paris on July 27.
"Lance was a bit stronger than me last year, I didn't even try to beat him," said Vinokourov, whose stage victory Monday was his first on the Tour. "But going into the Pyrenees, the gap isn't very big and I am in good condition."
Armstrong said after placing third at L'Alpe d'Huez that he's not as strong as when he won from 1999-2002. He's hardly had an easy Tour. He battled stomach flu in the weeks before the race, was bruised in a crash on the Tour's second day and struggled Sunday with a faulty brake up the cruel climb over the 2,645m Col du Galibier.