By John Wilcockson
Preparation, motivation, execution.
Those were the three qualities that set apart the U.S. Postal-Berry Floor team at Wednesday’s team time trial. By beating the ONCE-Eroski team of Joseba Beloki by 30 seconds, and the Bianchi squad of Jan Ullrich by 43 seconds, Postal put Victor Hugo Peña in the yellow jersey and Lance Armstrong in the driving seat of this centennial Tour only two stages away from the Alps.
The preparation for the stage was something begun by the team’s Belgian directeurs sportifs Johan Bruyneel and Dirk Demol, who first came to look at the Joinville-St. Dizier course two months ago. Also in May, the Postal riders who attended the team’s training camp in the Alps, did some initial team time trial practice on their time trial bikes.
Then came the work over the 24 hours preceding the stage.
“Yesterday,” said Bruyneel, “we looked at the course a second time. We took down all the details — turn to the right, turn to the left, and things like that. Then we did it [with the team] this morning, first in the car to get the details in the head, then the last part on the bikes, because the last 20 kilometers is the most important. Afterwards, we talked about it and decided a strategy.”
An hour or so before the Postal’s 3:45 p.m. start, the nine riders were warming up on wind trainers in the cool of a tree-shaded park in Joinville. A good warm-up was essential, even though it was an 80-degree day, because there was a 3km climb right from the start.
Postal’s George Hincapie said that the plan was to start conservatively. “We knew its was hard start,” he said, “and almost a 70-kilometer time trial, so the ending is where you can make up the most time. And the beginning is where you can lose the race.”
The second part of the winning formula was motivation. And Postal had plenty of that. As Hincapie said: “We’ve lost [the team time trial] the last [three] years and we didn’t want to go down to dinner tonight and say we could have done this, could have done that. We didn’t have any excuses.”
It was also important that the team start last in the team time trial, and to achieve that Postal needed to be leading the team GC after stage 3. That was mainly done by having its best riders against the clock — Armstrong, Ekimov, Peña and Hincapie — ride full out in the Paris prologue. It was a successful strategy, with all four finishing in the top 15.
Then came the final part of the plan: execution. Bruyneel explained, “We reserved our strongest guys to take the longest turns in the last 20 kilometers, when we could make the difference. Five riders — Lance, George, Victor, Floyd [Landis] and [Viatcheslav] Ekimov — were the real motors of the team who took very long pulls.”
Some days when you win, you get to the finish line and say, ‘Shit, that was easy.’ Today was not one of those days.
That theory was only partially carried out, because riding a team time trial is very exacting and, on a day when strong side and head winds battered the riders, extremely exhausting. That was confirmed by team leader Armstrong.
“Some days when you win, you get to the finish line and say, ‘Shit, that was easy.’ Today was not one of those days,” said Armstrong. “It was a full effort for everybody. In the end, we were intending to take long pulls. But we were taking these 10-second pulls — we were empty.”
Winning the team time trial was more important this year as it is the only significant time trial before the mountains. But getting the yellow jersey for its popular Colombian rider Peña is just a bonus.
Hincapie explained, “We don’t act any different [because the yellow jersey is in the team]. Lance is the leader and I’m sure we’re not gonna kill ourselves to keep the yellow jersey for Victor, but we want to make sure that Lance stays in a good position.
“Everybody expects us to control the race, so we’re gonna have to play a big part in that also. But there a couple more sprint stages, so I’m sure the sprinters want to win some stages before the Alps.”
Indeed, Thursday’s 196.5km stage 5 from Troyes to Nevers has sprinters’ stage written all over it. No doubt, some of the 50 riders who are now five or so minutes behind on GC will try to get away in long-distance breaks. But as happened on stages 1, 2 and 3, the teams of sprinters Alessandro Petacchi, Erik Zabel, Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke should again bring the race back together before the end.
It’s a much shorter sprint at Nevers than the earlier one because there is a right-angle left turn with 700 meters to go, followed by a road curving to the right that straightens out only 200 meters from the line. It looks just the job for McEwen, who’s wearing the green jersey but has yet to win a stage.