LUNEVILLE, France (AP) -It takes several men for Lance Armstrong to answer nature’s call at the Tour de France.

As bizarre as that sounds, safely shepherding Armstrong through bathroom stops on French roads is just one of the many tasks that befall his teammates as they seek to secure him victory in cycling’s showcase race.

They also bring him drinks in the saddle to quench his thirst. And, most importantly, they pedal all day by his side to shield him from wind and from other riders, and they beat his path up steep mountain climbs.

In short, they are doing everything possible to try to ensure the six-time champion ends his stellar career on a high by retiring with a seventh consecutive crown when the three-week, 2,242-mile trek around France wraps up in Paris on July 24. Conquering the Tour after defeating cancer has made 33-year-old Armstrong a rich superstar. His six Tour wins are a record.

But how many have heard of teammates such as Pavel Padrnos and Manuel Beltran? Or of Willy Balmat, the squad’s Swiss cook? Or Erwin Ballarta, a Texas state trooper who is one of Armstrong’s bodyguards?

Probably very few. But all are cogs in the closely knit Discovery Channel team that forms the foundation upon which Armstrong’s success is built.

The key has been the Texan’s ability over the years to recruit some of cycling’s best talents, racers such as the powerful and genial New Yorker George Hincapie, who put their own ambitions on hold in July to devote themselves to Armstrong’s Tour campaigns.

In cycling, such racers are called “domestiques” – French for servants – because they tirelessly serve their leaders, the Tour’s top contenders. This year, Armstrong’s main challengers include Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov of the T-Mobile team, and CSC team leader Ivan Basso. In the fast and flat first week, when crashes are frequent because riders are still fresh, nervous and jostling for position, domestiques keep their leaders safe by racing as a group around them. They work to ensure that race rivals don’t surge ahead and build up threatening leads. And by riding at their side, they shield their leaders from wind, allowing them to conserve energy. Armstrong’s team likes to keep him in a sweet spot toward the front of the main pack, where the risk of crashes is lower.

“I’m glad I’m in the front with a good strong team,” Armstrong said Friday as the Tour veered into neighboring Germany. “I would hate to be swinging in the back.”

Should a leader stop for the bathroom or because of a puncture, a domestique generally will wait with him until he is finished or until the tire is changed. Then, he’ll guide him safely back into the main pack of racers.

“It’s a big job for the domestiques, keeping the leaders out of trouble,” said Dirk Demol, a director on the Discovery team. In the Texan’s case, Demol said, “There are always two guys staying with him from the gun for the whole stage.”

Hincapie, Czech rider Padrnos, Spain’s Benjamin Noval and team newcomer Yaroslav Popovych, a Ukrainian, are among Armstrong’s go-to guys on the flats. In the Alps, where the Tour heads this coming week, and later in the Pyrenees, Armstrong will look to Spaniards Beltran and Jose Luis Rubiera, Italian Paolo Savoldelli and Portugal’s Jose Azevedo to lead him in the ascents.

In short, Armstrong’s eight support riders all have a role in his race.

To coordinate race strategy, Tour riders wear two-way radios so they can communicate with their team directors and mechanics who ride behind the pack, called the peloton in French, in a convoy of cars.

Domestiques drop back to the cars to pick up water bottles for the rest of the team. Sometimes, mechanics repair riders’ bikes on the fly, hanging out of car windows to tighten a nut or adjust a brake. Team directors radio instructions, encouragement and information about the route and rivals’ positions. At Discovery, that role is filled by Johan Bruyneel, a Belgian former rider who helped convince Armstrong post-cancer that he could still win the Tour.

Hincapie, the only rider to have been with Armstrong for all his Tour wins, also keeps the team organized on the road.

“George tells them what to do in the race, gives them advice, says OK, let’s move up,’ or ease up,”‘ said Demol. “George is the real captain. He gives the orders in the race, because we are behind the peloton. We don’t see everything.”

Armstrong rewards his riders by giving them his prize money at the end of the race. They also get the satisfaction of having been part of the best winning streak in the Tour’s 102-year-old history.

“It’s been a great run so far,” said Hincapie. “It is an honor to be part of the team.”

AP-ES-07-08-05 1402EDT

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