Over roughly three weeks, the Tour de France can come to resemble theater more than a bike race. And what's currently playing is a juicy little mystery.

A suggestion was floated in some sections of the cycling press over the weekend that the mini-collapse of Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel team was a contrived event designed to lure opponents into thinking his supporting cast wasn't what it used to be.

Johan Bruyneel, director of the Discovery team, isn't given to displays of emotion in front of reporters, but his eyes widened before he responded when asked about the theory Monday.

You could almost see what he stopped himself from saying in any of the three or four languages he can trot out on command. Leave Lance alone? On a climb? Surrounded by just about everyone who could do any damage to him?

"I definitely wouldn't want to bluff like that," Bruyneel said.

The question may have offended Bruyneel's well-documented affection for detail and preparing for every contingency, which matches Armstrong's and is the primary reason for the synergy between the two.

But, make no mistake, Bruyneel relishes the gamesmanship involved in the race that often unfolds like a three-act play, and he has passed that love on to Armstrong.

It was Bruyneel who egged Armstrong on in "the Bluff" in the 2001 Tour, when Armstrong played possum, hoodwinked just about everyone on Alpe d'Huez, including German rival Jan Ullrich, and blew by him to win the stage.

More to the point, Bruyneel took a bullheaded American rider who liked to win straightforwardly and all the time, and helped him understand that perception is a powerful ally and delayed gratification is sometimes the best strategy.

"We've learned a lot from each other," Bruyneel said during Monday's rest day. "We were both inexperienced. I think we both grew together."

Bruyneel, 40, was a moderately talented rider who had a respectable career with several European teams, including the Spanish powerhouse ONCE. First, however, his parents insisted that he go to college, where he earned a marketing degree, making him part of a minority in the peloton. He lives outside Madrid with his wife and daughter.

Bruyneel won a Tour de France stage in Belgium 10 years ago, hanging on the wheel of none other than Miguel Indurain to conserve energy for a final sprint and slipping around him at the finish, a win that put him in the race leader's yellow jersey.

The following year, Bruyneel, then riding for the Dutch Rabobank team, skidded on gravel while negotiating a turn on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend and catapulted more than 30 feet into a ravine. The bike was totaled, but Bruyneel wasn't, even though he was wearing nothing on his head but the little cloth beanie that passed for headgear before helmets became mandatory last year.

The Tour will take that same road Tuesday. Bruyneel and several Discovery riders scouted it a few weeks ago. He did what many veterans do when they visit the battlefields of their youth -- count his blessings, lower himself into the trench and take a photograph.

"I was hanging in the air and I thought, 'That's it. It's over. I'm dead,' " he said Monday. "Two seconds after, I was climbing out of it, took a spare bike and went down like crazy as if nothing happened."

In 2003, Bruyneel said he was far more frightened after he saw film of the crash than he was at the time it happened. The psychological aftereffects were one reason he quit the race a few days later.

He had been retired for less than a year when he became director for the team formerly known as U.S. Postal, and Armstrong has often said that Bruyneel's fresh-from-the-peloton mentality helped the two of them click.

And this week is likely to bring more maneuvering before Armstrong tries to take back the lead he lost semi-purposely on Sunday, when he and Discovery -- along with anyone else interested in winning the Tour -- allowed three riders to escape without a chase.

Bruyneel would have preferred that Armstrong relinquish the yellow jersey the day after he took it on the team time-trial win, but no other team played along and Discovery wound up conducting a sort of passive but draining defense.

Now, the next time Armstrong tries to take the yellow jersey, the intent will be to keep it.

"Once you get to the real mountains, there are not so many riders any more who can take the jersey," Bruyneel said. "If it comes to a situation where you have to give it away, it would be to someone dangerous. If some team has the jersey after one or two mountain stages, they'll want to defend, and we are no exception."

And when will that be? In the Alps? Or on Sunday, on the punishing uphill finish on Pla d'Adet in the Pyrenees?

If Bruyneel knows, he's not saying.

"I'm excited and I'm nervous and I can't wait to see what's going to happen," Bruyneel said. "If I would know. . . . it would not be fun."

BRUYNEEL