By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Thursday’s team time trial stage at the Tour de France ended with a very happy American who moved up into third place. But it wasn’t two-time defending champion Lance Armstrong. No, instead it was a rider who has known nothing but difficulties at the Tour during Armstrong’s two-year reign. On Thursday, though, Crédit Agricole’s Bobby Julich could finally break into a broad smile again at the Tour de France. His Crédit Agricole team posted the best time of the day on a wet, windy day that was filled with tension and danger. The ride not only kept Australian Stuart O’Grady in the yellow jersey, it also moved Jens Voigt into second and Julich into third overall.
As for Armstrong and the Postal Service team, they fell victim to the wet weather when Christian Vande Velde and Roberto Heras went down hard late in the race. The team recovered well, but would finish fourth, losing 1:26 on the day. Armstrong fell to 15th, 1:53 behind O’Grady.
Jan Ullrich’s Telekom team, meanwhile, didn’t fare as well as expected, finishing 7th on the day, 1:50 behind Crédit Agricole and 24 seconds behind Postal. Ullrich, one of the pre-race favorites to challenge Armstrong now sits 19th, 2:20 behind.
Two other general classification hopefuls, Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski) and Christophe Moreau (Festina), were big gainers on the day, with ONCE finishing second and Festina third behind Crédit Agricole. Beloki and Moreau moved into fifth and eighth overall, respectively.
The team that will be celebrating on Thursday night, though, will be Crédit Agricole, which held onto the race lead as well as positioning itself well in the overall battle. Except for a late flat tire for Julich, things went almost flawlessly for the team on a hard, up-and-down course punctuated by a leg-burning, 2km uphill finish in Bar-le-Duc.
“We did the parcours [course] last week, and I knew it was going to be a very tough race,” said O’Grady.
Indeed, with a steady rain falling, and the usual cross winds and headwinds, the constantly rolling course that began in Verdun and ended 67km later in Bar-le-Duc was even harder than expected. But Crédit Agricole was well prepared, having ridden the full course twice last week, and then getting up and scouting the course again this morning.
“This morning I didn’t feel like going out. My legs were feeling a little bit like lead,” said O’Grady. “But then [team director Roger Legeay] made us go out, and it was a good decision.”
Still, the final result came as a surprise, even to the team itself. “We had the objective of getting top 5, and losing only a minute, like last year,” said O’Grady.
“It’s really a one-day bonus for us. As we’ve said each day, we’ll take it day by day. There’s no real pressure to keep the jersey for a long time,” he continued.
While O’Grady has started to grow accustomed to wearing yellow since Tuesday, the first week has also marked a happy turnaround for Julich. The American, who finished 3rd overall in the Tour in 1998, has had back-to-back disappointments at the Tour, crashing out of the 1999 race and then struggling badly in the mountains last year.
But ever since the beginning of this Tour in Dunkirk, he’s been enjoying a renewal, playing an active role each day, such as his spots in the key breakaways on Monday and Wednesday.
“When I’m feeling good for the first time in two years, I’d rather put my cards on the table,” he said after yesterday’s stage.
When his whole team put its cards down on Thursday, it came up a royal flush, and no one was more ecstatic than Julich.
“Oh my god, is the wind at our back now or what!” he exclaimed as he rolled through after the finish on Thursday. “I felt really good. The whole team was perfect. Incredible.”
Another of his teammates was enjoying the win just as much. Jonathan Vaughters made a huge contribution to the win after several days of struggling and losing time in the crosswinds of Belgium and northern France. The free-spirited former U.S time trial champion was finally in his element, and it showed.
Like Julich, Vaughters too has had a bad track record in the previous two Tours, crashing out of both of them. And his 2001 race didn’t start out much better, as he lost more than 24 minutes in the first four stages. However, on Thursday, he was finally able to show some of his talent.
“Finally, I had a good day,” said Vaughters. “This is the best I’ve felt since the beginning of the race.
While Crédit Agricole was clearly the fastest team, posting all of the best intermediate times, the Postal Service squad was riding a solid race itself, usually within seconds of ONCE and Festina. But near-disaster struck late, when Vande Velde slid out on a slick painted line on the road. He went down hard, ripping his shorts and bloodying his leg, and Heras went down as well.
“It really wasn’t a big turn, but it shows you how slippery those white lines can be. It’s really incredible. It’s not his fault, it’s just one of those freak things. I think under the circumstances, we made the best of it today,” said teammate Tyler Hamilton. “At first there was a little miscommunication. We didn’t know if he was down for the count or what, so we kept riding for a little bit and then we figured it was best to wait. We made the best of a crazy situation.”
Vande Velde and Heras were able to rejoin after a quick chase, but it was a disappointing day for the American. “I was so mad with myself. I had great legs,” he said.
Postal was able to limit its losses, and its final deficit of 1:26 likely won’t be of serious concern to the team. Telekom’s gap of 1:50 to Crédit Agricole also won’t be a major worry, but the seventh-place result was still surprising from the team that has been a major force at the front of the peloton in each stage up until now.
The team looked to be its usual smooth self in the early going, but late in the race American Kevin Livingston began to fall off the pace, followed by double stage winner Erik Zabel and Jens Heppner.
“With 10 or 12K to go, it was just really difficult,” said Livingston.
Teammate Udo Bölts noted, however, that the real battles are still to come: “The team found a good rhythm, and, yeah, it was not too bad for us. In the mountains, it’s minutes [to be gained and lost]; here, it’s seconds.”
Crédit Agricole, though, wasn’t thinking ahead to the mountains. As O’Grady said, it’s just day-by-day. And perhaps Julich summed up the feeling on the team the best: “I’m not thinking about the mountains. I’m thinking about the champagne I’m gonna drink tonight.”