Armstrong teammate takes yellow jersey
Special to the Post Independent
SAINT DIZIER, France – Winds of change blew through the Tour de France on Wednesday, and they blew in Lance Armstrong’s favor.
The four-time Tour champion and his U.S. Postal Service teammates enjoyed a banner day. The nine-man team fought through swirling winds to win the fourth stage, a prestigious team time trial, delivering Colombia its first race leader’s yellow jersey.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” said Armstrong, now second overall, just one second behind teammate Victor Hugo Pena. “Every year we get second or third, it’s not a good feeling. I don’t want to sit at the dinner table and look at each other and be disappointed. We had a meeting this morning and I said, `Let’s just do this.'”
In the previous three Tours, Armstrong’s Postal team has just missed winning the dynamic event, in which entire nine-man squads race together against the clock.
Wednesday’s win was all the sweeter because Postal finished 30 seconds ahead of archrival ONCE, winner of two of the last three team time trials.
“The team time trial is always the race of prestige. We’ve always been close, so it means a lot to win it today,” said Postal assistant sports director Dirk Demol. “Lance motivated the boys and said, `Guys, we have to win, we have to show we’re the strongest team.'”
Colombian journalists went berserk at the finish line, calling the race live to cycling-crazed fans back home. Colombian riders have had luck in the Tour since the early 1980s, and Fabio Parra became a national hero after he finished third to become the only Colombian to finish on the Tour podium.
“Colombia is a South American version of Belgium. People are mad about cycling,” said Pena, who was the top Postal rider in Saturday’s prologue. “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.”
But more importantly, Armstrong took out important time on his rivals in his quest to join the Tour’s elite five-win club. Only four men have won the Tour five times and on Wednesday, Armstrong scored an important advantage.
“Like I always say, the team time trial is either a gift or a curse, and I’ll take the gift today,” he said. “We took some time on some people today, and that’s important.”
It certainly was a curse for Italian racer Gilberto Simoni, who came into this Tour fresh off his victory in the Giro d’Italia and was talking with bravado about toppling the Texan. But his Saeco team had a disastrous ride and limped across the line three minutes behind U.S. Postal.
“I am demoralized,” Simoni said. “I started today’s stage dreaming of taking the yellow jersey, but some riders on my team were not as strong as we expected. I don’t know what happened. This changes everything.”
Armstrong also took 43 seconds out of 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, the only rider Armstrong says can truly threaten him throughout the three-week battle on two wheels.
Last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki of ONCE was so awed by Armstrong’s display he’s all but conceded the race.
“When I came to this Tour, Lance was the only favorite and today he showed that’s true,” said Beloki. “Unless he has a bad day in the mountains, he will win again.”
Ullrich’s team, sponsored by Bianchi, put down an impressive ride to finish third at 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 Ullrich rode very strong and took long pulls at the front to push the team along.
Rabobank, meanwhile, suffered without the presence of Levi Leipheimer and Marc Lotz, who both crashed out of the Tour on Sunday. Michael Boogerd rode with a sore knee after crashing in the feed zone Tuesday and the team came through at 2:41 slower. Telekom came in with a solid fifth-place finish at 1:30, while Vini Caldirola was just two seconds slower, both good rides.
The Tour rolls on Thursday with a rolling transition stage that pushes into central France.
American 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 69 kilometers 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 Hamilton win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Romandy. He 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.
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