By Andrew Hood
Lance Armstrong gathered his fellow U.S. Postal Service teammates inside the team’s bus in Joinville before the start of Wednesday’s team time trial to discuss the day’s matters. Second place wouldn’t be good enough for the four-time defending champion. Armstrong wanted one of the few podiums that have eluded him in his four-year Tour dominance.
“Every year we get second or third, it’s not a good feeling. I don’t want to sit at the dinner table tonight and look at each other and be disappointed,” Armstrong said, as he was mobbed by journalists at the finish line. “I said, ‘Let’s just do this.’ It’s a fantastic feeling.”
Armstrong and his “Blue Train” delivered a dramatic victory across the rolling hills of eastern France, battling through the Tour’s warmest day so far to finish 30 seconds ahead of archrival ONCE-Eroski and taking more than three minutes out of Saeco’s Gilberto Simoni.
The victory pushed Victor Hugo Peña into the yellow jersey, the first Colombian ever to wear cycling’s most prized garment.
The team started slow – hitting the first checkpoint with just the seventh-best time – but went faster over the remainder 69km course against swirling head winds and crosswinds, erasing a six-second deficit to ONCE with 25km to go to become the first American team to win a Tour team time trial.
“This is big because we’ve always been close to winning, but for whatever reason we haven’t been able to do it,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day it’s a big advantage against some of the other riders. It’s either a gift or a curse and I’ll take the gift today.”
The Posties started celebrating even before they crossed the line. George Hincapie was pumping his arms and an ecstatic Armstrong got off his bike and hugged each of his eight teammates. They’d done their job.
Party at Postal
There were plenty of hugs, high-fives, whoops, cheers and smiles to go around. The entire team climbed the Tour podium for kisses from the podium girls and to take the flowers. The mood of the team was ecstatic.
“Team time trial is always the race of prestige. We’ve always been close, so it means a lot to win it today,” said assistant sport director Dirk Demol. “Lance motivated the boys and said, ‘Guys, we have to win, we have to show we’re the strongest team.'”
Team rider Hincapie said the team wouldn’t accept anything less than victory.
“We put it all on the line,” Hincapie said. “We knew we were strong and at the first time check, we were 10 seconds back of ONCE, which was perfect for me because I wasn’t even tired yet. If you make a hard start, it’s 70km, you win the race in the final sections, didn’t want to go too hard and be in the red zone off the front. We got stronger as the race went on.”
Postal has been chasing the team time trial win since 2000, but each year the team came up short. In 2000, Armstrong dropped his teammates over the huge St. Nazaire bridge in western France. In 2001, two riders crashed on rain-slicked roads, while last year ONCE nipped Postal to ruin the party..”
I don’t know how to explain it… I am demoralized.
This year, the team was more motivated than ever. All spring there’s been chatter that Armstrong was vulnerable or that his “Blue Train” was not in top form. Armstrong’s seventh-place finish in the prologue and his crash Sunday gave critics more fodder.
“I find it difficult to say those things without backing them up. We prefer to stay a little quieter and when it’s all on the line, show what we got,” said Armstrong, now second at one second behind Peña.
After the podium, Armstrong rode back to the team bus with a big smile on his face. A huge crowd piled in around him to get a glimpse of cycling’s strongman.
Peña in yellow
The big winner from Postal’s victory was Peña, who becomes the first Colombian – and the first South American – to don the yellow jersey.
“I’m very proud to be the first Colombian in the yellow jersey,” he said. “My victory is for the Colombian people, the sponsors and the government to support sports in combination with peace in Colombia.”
Colombian journalists were going berserk at the finish line, broadcasting the race live back home where cycling is a major sport. “Colombia is like a South American version of Belgium,” said Peña, who will celebrate his birthday Thursday wearing yellow. “People are mad about cycling. We’re more well-known for our climbers, but I grew up watching my father on the track.”
“I remember when Colombia sent a team to the Tour for the first time in 1983,” added Peña, a former swimmer who turned to cycling in his mid-teens. “We used to sit up and listen to the radio. I remember the slogan at the time, ‘We’re off to conquer Europe.’ Today, somehow I feel like I’ve helped to achieve that.”
Peña was the fastest Postal rider in Saturday’s opening prologue and was poised to take the jersey if the team could deliver the win. He started with a 10-second deficit to leader Jean-Patrick Nazon and one second ahead of Armstrong, but Nazon’s team was never a factor in the stage.
Peña came across the line in eighth, but the entire Postal team was credited with the same time. It’s uncertain how long his run in yellow will last. Two rolling stages are on tap before Saturday’s first appointment with the mountains.
That didn’t stop Colombian journalists from taking note. The Tour de France press chief said a reporter had called just hours after Peña’s big day requesting credentials.
Armstrong in charge
The immediate fallout from Wednesday’s stage was a deflated Tour peloton. No one had expected Postal to ride that strongly.
The day’s biggest loser was Saeco’s Gilberto Simoni, who lost 3:02 to Postal.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Simoni told Italian journalists. “We didn’t expect to lose time today, but some of our guys weren’t riding as strong as we expected. I don’t know why. I am demoralized.”
With the absence of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE lost some of its firepower in the team time trial, a discipline the Spanish squad won in two out of the past three years. For last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki, losing 30 seconds to Armstrong was bad enough to provoke the Tour’s first concession.
“When I started this Tour de France, Lance was the top favorite for victory, the only favorite,” Beloki said. “It’s obvious after today he is very strong and he will probably win again unless he has some sort of problem.”
Team Bianchi put down an impressive ride to finish third, 43 seconds slower. Before the stage, even the team’s sport director Rudy Pevenage admitted the team could lose up to two minutes to the winner. But 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich rode very strongly and took long pulls at the front to push the team along.
It’s obvious after today (Armstrong) is very strong and he will probably win again unless he has some sort of problem.
Rabobank suffered with the absence of Levi Leipheimer and Marc Lotz, both of whom crashed out of the Tour on Sunday. Michael Boogerd rode with a sore knee after crashing in the feed zone Tuesday and the team was 2:41 slower than Postal.
Telekom came in with a solid fifth-place finish at 1:30 while Vini Caldirola was just two seconds slower, both good rides.
Tyler Hamilton delivered on his promise to help teammate Carlos Sastre and helped push CSC into 10th place. The team’s mechanics adjusted Hamilton’s handlebars, but riding 69km with a fractured collarbone was painful.
“I’m not 100 percent, but I was very motivated to ride. If I wasn’t going well, I was going to tell them to go on without me. I didn’t want to be a handicap,” Hamilton said. “I think I helped the team save about one minute. It was very painful to hold the time-trial position. It’s a dull consistent pain.”
Hamilton said he rode to help Sastre, his Spanish teammate who helped him win Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour de Romandie. The American said X-rays will be taken of his shoulder Thursday and he will decide whether he’ll continue in the Tour based on his performance in the Alps on Saturday.
“I’ll see how I do in Saturday’s climbing stage. I know I’m not going to be 100 percent, but if I can be 95 percent, maybe I can be a factor,” Hamilton said. “I don’t want to race the Tour just to finish; been there, done that.”To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply Click Here to bring up our Live Update window.