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A look ahead: Stats, speed, danger and sprints

Keepers of statistics will love this one. In trouncing his main GC opponents at the opening 19km time trial of the Tour on Saturday, Lance Armstrong raced at precisely 54.545 kph. Sound familiar? Well, yes. When Greg LeMond rode his famous 24.5km time trial between Versailles and Paris at the 1989 Tour, to overcome a 50-second deficit on Laurent Fignon, he raced at precisely 54.545 kph. What’s even more important for Armstrong is that, while conceding the stage win to former teammate Dave Zabriskie by two seconds, he defeated third-place Alexandre Vinokourov by 51 seconds, Floyd Landis by

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By John Wilcockson

Keepers of statistics will love this one.

In trouncing his main GC opponents at the opening 19km time trial of the Tour on Saturday, Lance Armstrong raced at precisely 54.545 kph. Sound familiar? Well, yes. When Greg LeMond rode his famous 24.5km time trial between Versailles and Paris at the 1989 Tour, to overcome a 50-second deficit on Laurent Fignon, he raced at precisely 54.545 kph.

What’s even more important for Armstrong is that, while conceding the stage win to former teammate Dave Zabriskie by two seconds, he defeated third-place Alexandre Vinokourov by 51 seconds, Floyd Landis by a minute, Jan Ullrich by 1:06 and Ivan Basso by 1:24. Those margins could increase somewhat on Tuesday should Armstrong’s Discovery Channel squad take the stage 4 team time trial, which would give the Texan a very nice cushion before the race goes into the mountains next week.

Before the team time trial, though, come two road stages that will be very fast, and both potentially very dangerous. Fast, because the riders will be pushed by mainly favorable winds on very flat courses. Sunday’s stage will be particularly dangerous because it finishes in a town, Les Essarts, which has only 5100 inhabitants. That equates to no major roads, forcing the peloton to stretch out on the straights and bunch up in the turns, as it passes through a series of villages in the final hour.

Should the whole pack of 189 riders still be together on the tight run-in, then it would be no surprise to see one or two mass pileups. When the Tour last included finishes in similarly small towns in 1997, the year that Ullrich won his only Tour, the pileups involved dozens of riders, and led to the elimination of leading race favorite Tony Rominger.

The dangers are likely to be accentuated on Sunday by a forecast northwest wind of around 20kph that will make the pack fly though the opening 110km along the Atlantic coast. The final 75km returns inland, often on narrow, twisting back roads, dipping in and out of low valleys before the racers hit five turns in the final kilometer; the last sharp corner comes less than 300 meters from the line.

The tight finish favors dynamic, fearless sprinters like Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Isaac Galvez, rather than power sprinters like Tom Boonen, Jean-Patrick Nazon and Jaan Kirsipuu. It should be an exciting stage climax, but the time bonuses taken by the sprinters won’t be enough to change the overall positions established in Saturday’s time trial.

That means that David Zabriskie, the third American ever to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, will enjoy a second day in the lead. It’s still too early to say whether the athletic CSC rider, with his long, piston-like legs and big heart, will ever attain the 23 days in yellow attained by LeMond or the 66 days of Armstrong. But if he achieves nothing else Zabriskie has already entered his name into the Tour record books with his winning average TT speed on Saturday of 54.676 kph — marginally faster than those of both of his illustrious countrymen’s 54.545.