Telekom the favorite for TTT

Verdun -- Jan Ullrich’s Deutsche Telekom squad has played things very smart so far in this year’s Tour de France. With the minimum of effort, it has kept Ullrich nicely placed in the top 10 on GC and has taken two of the first four stages with Erik Zabel. And on Wednesday’s stressful stage from Huy to Verdun, Telekom placed Alex Vinokourov in two early breaks, and then Udo Bölts in the day’s main nine-man move that blew the race apart. So while Lance Armstrong ’s Postal troops and Joseba Beloki’s ONCE riders were leading a long 50-kph chase, Telekom was able to follow wheels until it was in

By John Wilcockson

Verdun — Jan Ullrich’s Deutsche Telekom squad has played things very smart so far in this year’s Tour de France. With the minimum of effort, it has kept Ullrich nicely placed in the top 10 on GC and has taken two of the first four stages with Erik Zabel. And on Wednesday’s stressful stage from Huy to Verdun, Telekom placed Alex Vinokourov in two early breaks, and then Udo Bölts in the day’s main nine-man move that blew the race apart. So while Lance Armstrong ’s Postal troops and Joseba Beloki’s ONCE riders were leading a long 50-kph chase, Telekom was able to follow wheels until it was in its interest to start pulling.

As a result, Ullrich’s men should be more rested (relatively speaking!) for Thursday’s crucial team time trial. The make-up of the team is also well balanced. Veteran workers Bolts, Jens Heppner and Steffen Wesemann provide stability; the younger legs of Ullrich, Vinokourov and Zabel give the power; while its three climbers, Giuseppe Guerini, Andreas Klöden and Kevin Livingston, have shown this week that they can contribute just as much in a paceline as the others.

The Postal team is not quite so well balanced for the team time trial. Maybe Armstrong, Viatcheslav Ekimov, George Hincapie, Steffen Kjaergaard and Christian Vande Velde can carry the day, but the non-selected Matt White will be missed, especially as his replacement, José Rubiera, crashed Tuesday and has finished with the back group the past two days. Tyler Hamilton, too, is still feeling the effects of his traumatic fall on stage 2, and said that he wasn’t exactly looking forward to following Roberto Heras in the team’s TTT formation: The Spaniard weighs only 128 pounds and provides virtually no draft. As for the ninth rider, Colombian Victor Hugo Peña, he has TT ability, but it’s always difficult for a newcomer to fit into a group of riders that is so used to each other’s body language.

Armstrong is confident, though. He said after Wednesday’s stage that there was plenty of time to recover from the hard efforts his team made on the road to Verdun; and, in referring to the gains that can be made in a TTT, he said, “It’s real important -– do you want to buy time or do you want someone to give you time. We all want free stuff, and that’s free time.”

Besides Postal and Telekom, the other favored squads in the 67km TTT from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc are ONCE-Eroski, Festina and Crédit Agricole. Whichever squad wins is almost sure to also claim the yellow jersey, given the closeness of the current general classification. Of those five top teams, their best-placed riders are respectively Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONCE), Armstrong. Ullrich, Christophe Moreau (Festina) and current race leader Stuart O’Grady (Crédit Agricole). One of these five will almost certainly be in yellow by the end of the day.

As it is leading the overall team competition, Crédit Agricole will start last of the 21 teams. And with such powerful TT riders as Bobby Julich, Thor Hushovd, Jens Voigt, Jonathan Vaughters and O’Grady, the French squad is ready to surprise a few people. After riding most of Wednesday’s stage at the head of the race, Julich said, “We looked at the team time trial course two days before the Tour. It’s a very hard course … but the yellow jersey can give you a lot of motivation.”

This TTT will be one of the hardest there’s been in recent Tour history for three reasons: its lateness in the race (two days later than 2000, so more riders are already tired or recovering from crashes); the course’s difficulty (constantly rolling, with a stiff 2km-long climb to the finish line); and the weather (a head wind of up to 15 mph is in the forecast).

More than half the course utilizes one of the most famous roads in France, and the only one not to be attributed a road number. It’s simply known as La Voie Sacrée (the Sacred Way), which was the only supply road to French forces for more than two years during World War I’s bloodiest battle, Verdun.

DETAILS OF STAGE 5: Verdun to Bar-le-Duc, 57km team time trial

Intermediate time checks at Senoncourt (19.5km) and Erize-la-Grand (45km).

The stage finishes on top of a 2km, 4-percent climb.

The start times are the reverse order of current team standings: 2:05 p.m. Cofidis 2:10 p.m. Euskaltel-Euskadi 2:15 p.m. AG2R 2:20 p.m. Lampre-Daikin 2:25 p.m. BigMat-Auber 93 2:30 p.m. Jean Delatour 2:35 p.m. Rabobank 2:40 p.m. CSC-Tiscali 2:45 p.m. Domo-Farm Frites 2:50 p.m. iBanesto.com 2:55 p.m. Bonjour 3:00 p.m. La Française des Jeux 3:05 p.m. Fassa Bortolo 3:10 p.m. Deutsche Telekom 3:15 p.m. Lotto-Adecco 3:20 p.m. Mapei-Quick Step 3:25 p.m. Kelme-Costa Blanca 3:30 p.m. U.S. Postal Service 3:35 p.m. ONCE-Eroski 3:40 p.m. Festina 3:45 p.m. Crédit Agricole