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By John Wilcockson
Bjarne Riis is convinced that his CSC team is going to win Tuesday’s 67.5km team time trial. “I will be upset if we lose,” Riis said on the eve of what is one of the most important tests in this Tour de France. Should CSC win the TTT, it would not only retain the yellow jersey of Dave Zabriskie but also allow team leader Ivan Basso to regain some of the 84 seconds he conceded to defending champion Lance Armstrong in the opening individual time trial.
Although Armstrong’s team, now sponsored by Discovery Channel, has won the past two years, there are some question marks against its lineup for this year’s TTT.
First: Can newcomers Yaroslav Popovych and Paolo Savoldelli be as effective as the injured Viatcheslav Ekimov and transferred Floyd Landis? Ekimov brought the keen sense of discipline and rhythm that are so important in this event; those attributes can’t be replicated by Savoldelli. At the same time, Popovych is still learning his trade and he is riding his first Tour; he can’t replace Landis, who was incredibly fast and strong in this stage last year.
Second: Can Discovery’s most experienced and strongest team time trialists Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie carry the day, and lead the American squad to a third consecutive victory? More likely, there will be extra pressure on these two veterans, especially when riders drop off in the closing stages of the TTT — and that will happen.
As for CSC, Riis is right to be confident. In Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt, Nicki Sørensen and Kurt-Asle Arvesen, the team has discipline, knowledge and strength. Newcomers Luke Roberts and Zabriskie are also experts in the TTT, and very, very fast. And Basso, Carlos Sastre and Giovanni Lombardi are all accomplished in this group effort.
The main challengers for CSC and Discovery are Jan Ullrich’s and Alex Vinokourov’s T-Mobile formation, along with Landis’s and Santiago Botero’s Phonak squad. Both these teams are well stacked with strong time trialists and have great motivation. But they have some weaknesses compared with CSC and Discovery.
Expect most of the teams to stay together over the opening 42km, which are flat and fast along the left bank of the Loire River. The true test of each team’s homogeneity comes in the final 20km when half a dozen short climbs will challenge each rider’s stamina before a rapid drop into the city of Blois. More than one team will finish with the minimum five riders it takes for their collective time.
As last year, only the first finishers on the winning team have their actual time counted in the individual GC. The riders on all the other squads receive a graduated time penalty: 20 seconds for the runner-up, 30 seconds for the third-place finisher, and then 10-second gaps down to the maximum three-minute penalty for the 21st and final team.
When a 64km individual time trial was held between Tours and Blois in the 1992 Tour, stage winner Miguel Induráin averaged 52.349 kph, while the only other time that Blois has hosted a Tour stage finish (in 1999) Mario Cipollini set the fastest-ever road stage average of 50.355 kph. Maybe in this third Blois stage the TTT record of 54.930 kph set by Gewiss-Ballan in 1995 will also be beaten. CSC is the team that can do it.