By John Wilcockson
An analysis of the time splits at Thursday’s team time trial show that the U.S. Postal Service squad was on target to place second before Christian Vande Velde skidded on the slick, white-painted center line and fell, bringing down the team’s No. 2 rider Roberto Heras.
The crash happened just inside 15km to go. If the other seven Postal riders hadn’t have waited, not only would Heras have lost a couple of minutes but he would also have felt abandoned. And that’s not how a team wants to go into the mountains, where the Spanish climber needs to be at his best to help Lance Armstrong win the Tour.
Obviously, it’s never a good idea to willingly concede time at the Tour — as Armstrong did by waiting -– but that decision will surely come back to help him rather than haunt him. At the time of the crash, Postal was riding at the same pace as stage winner Crédit Agricole: Postal rode the 25.5km between the first and second time splits in 31:18 Postal, one second slower than Crédit Agricole, and four seconds faster than ONCE-Eroski. If they had continued to match C.A. (and that was the impression), Postal would have been about 30 seconds down at the finish instead of its actual margin of 1:26.
However, going into Friday’s stage 6, Armstrong is still 27 seconds ahead of his main rival Jan Ullrich –- and that’s the margin that really matters. More serious is the 46 seconds that Armstrong now trails last year’s third-place finisher Joseba Beloki of ONCE, and perhaps the 1:26 he has conceded to Crédit Agricole’s Bobby Julich. Julich says he is finally feeling as strong as he did in placing third at the 1998 Tour, and if he is then he could again finish on the podium.
As for Friday’s 211.5km stage between Commercy and Strasbourg, look for a marathon-type break to finally succeed. There will be tail wind from start to finish, which will favor early breaks on the hilly course — especially as the leaders will not be eager to make their teams work too hard right after a TTT. Also, the Tour’s first Cat. 2 climb, the 2385-foot Col du Donon, is not long enough (4km at 8 percent) to cause a break to lose its momentum. If such a break has an advantage of six minutes or more at the summit, it will make it to the finish. Less than six minutes, the result is more likely to be a mass sprint on Strasbourg’s Quai des Alpes.
As for predictions, a breakaway could result in a win for someone like Piotr Wadecki of Domo-Farm Frites or Serge Baguet of Lotto-Adecco. A sprint? Well, Strasbourg is only a hiccup away from Erik Zabel’s homeland….
DETAILS OF STAGE 6: Commercy to Strasbourg, 211.5km.
Colombey-les-Belles (40km); Badonviller (129km) and Dinsheim (182km).
Cat. 4 at Void-Vacon (9.5km); Cat. 4 at Chapelotte (135.5km) and Cat. 2Col du Donon (153km).