The story of the Tour de France on Thursday was what happened off the bikes.
After the 11th stage from Saint-Flour to Figeac in central France was won by Frenchman David Moncoutie, five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong said that a TV crew from France 3 had attempted to get access to his room to search for doping evidence after he had left to compete.
"They show up and they ask sporting questions to our face, but as soon as they leave they're digging in the rooms and looking for dirt," he told the Associated Press. "If you left a B vitamin sitting there, that would get on TV."
Hugues Huet, the France 3 reporter, said he went to the hotel to talk to Armstrong aides but denied seeking access to his room.
"It's completely ridiculous," Huet told the AP. "We do have ethics and we don't do just anything. . . . If I played around by searching his room like that, I would be breaking the limits."
Armstrong finished ninth in the stage and remains sixth overall, 9 minutes 35 seconds behind leader Thomas Voeckler of France.
In another development off the course, three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond told the French newspaper Le Monde that he doubts Armstrong is drug free.
"Lance is ready to do anything to keep his secret," LeMond told the paper. "I don't know how he can continue to convince everybody of his innocence."
Armstrong consistently and repeatedly has denied those accusations.
"Le Monde is a newspaper whose intentions we know," said Johan Bruyneel, manager of Armstrong's U.S. Postal team. "And if I can make a suggestion to the editor it would be that they change their sports and cycling pages into a doping page. There's nothing we can do to counter it."
The Tour, of course, goes on with the past week belonging to the sprinters, Armstrong looking strong and the most challenging stages of the race -- in the mountains where Armstrong excels -- just beginning.
The real competition begins Friday, the first of several grueling mountain stages leading up to the final time trial on the penultimate day, and the next stages are likely to see a significant reordering of the riders. On Friday, Armstrong and his teammates will begin to show whether they can fend off rivals such as German Jan Ullrich and Spaniards Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo.
The challenge begins in Castelsarrasin and ends 197.5 kilometers later in the Pyrenees ski resort of La Mongie, an overall climb of 12.8 kilometers. Two climbs of more than 12 kilometers toward the end of the stage are expected to thin the pack and separate the climbers from the sprinters.
On Saturday, the riders will travel another 205.5 kilometers through the Pyrenees, from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille, over a route that includes no less than seven peaks, starting at the Col des Ares and ending up at Plateau de Beille's 15.9-kilometer uphill slope.
Most cycling experts believe the Friday challenge will considerably thin the pack as far as the overall standings are concerned. Armstrong was not predicting a stage win Friday, even if he confidently expects to be one of the remaining cyclists in the peloton.
"I think Saturday suits me better," Armstrong said. "Tomorrow is better suited to a smaller, more explosive climber. I don't think what happens tomorrow is any indication of what will happen on Plateau de Beille and the other days."
In fact, Armstrong may have reason to be shifting the focus to Saturday; some cycling enthusiasts believe that is the day when the Tour winner will be decided.
After a quieter day Sunday, and a Monday rest day, the Tour will enter the Alps on Tuesday, with the riders passing over seven tough peaks and arriving first at the mountain village of Villard-de-Lans. And Wednesday, in what Armstrong has called "hell week," riders will compete in an unprecedented individual time trial, racing against the clock to the notorious L'Alpe d'Huez.
"It's a climb we all know well, a famous climb we do almost every year," Armstrong said before the start of this year's Tour. "But this is the first time in the history of the Tour that we've time-trialed up to it, where every guy's up there alone. It's going to be special."