Armstrong within split second of Tour de France lead
July 7, 2009
MONTPELLIER, France – Calling his team “simply awesome,” Lance Armstrong was nearly decked out in yellow again.
The seven-time champion surged from third place to second at the Tour de France on Tuesday after his Astana squad won a team time trial in a dramatic finish.
Armstrong erased all but a sliver of his 40-second deficit to leader Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland in the fourth stage. The only thing separating him from the yellow jersey now is a fraction of a second.
“Boo-YA!!!” Armstrong wrote on Twitter. “Well, what can I say? The team was simply awesome today. Consistent, fluid, mistake-free. We love this event … and are stoked to win.”
The performance was reminiscent of Armstrong’s dominance in the team time trial for the last three years of his string of victories from 1999 to 2005. This is his comeback year at the Tour after 3 1/2 years of retirement.
The 37-year-old Texan plotted strategy with star teammate Alberto Contador before the stage to weed out potential rivals.
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Astana was timed in 46 minutes, 29 seconds for the 24.2-mile ride in and around Montpellier. That was 18 seconds better than -up Garmin, with Saxo Bank third, 40 seconds back.
Armstrong entered the day 40 seconds behind Cancellara of Saxo Bank, meaning ownership of the yellow jersey came down to split seconds.
At the last intermediate time check (19 miles), Astana was 41 seconds faster than Saxo, putting Armstrong in the lead at that point and setting up the tense finale.
Armstrong and Cancellara share an overall time of 10 hours, 38 minutes, 7 seconds, although the Swiss rider was deemed a fraction ahead. Organizers examined Saturday’s opening time trial in Monaco that was won by Cancellara. Those results were calculated to the thousandth of a second.
“That’s Swiss timing,” Cancellara said, laughing. “Time is on my side.”
After first expressing “a bit of disappointment” on French TV about not capturing the yellow shirt he has worn many times, Armstrong put his ride in perspective.
“That’s the way it is. We did our best,” he said. “At one point, we thought we had it, but if I look back on our performance … we were as sound as we could be.”
“I have no regrets. I don’t look at that and lose sleep or get disappointed,” he said at a news conference. “This is a long race, maybe there’s one (yellow jersey) in my future.”
The potential rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, the Spaniard who won the 2007 Tour, has become a major subtext to the race.
They shelved any such rivalry Tuesday. Armstrong said he appealed to Contador before the race to work together to distance other contenders.
“My point was to Alberto, ‘Look, let’s ride perfect, and make this race almost impossible to win for others,”‘ he said. “And I think we can say that we accomplished that.”
Astana dealt a blow to several title hopefuls. Defending champion Carlos Sastre of Spain is 2:44 back; two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia is 2:59 behind; and Giro d’Italian champ Denis Menchov of Russia is 3:52 back.
“I think today, the Tour de France is finished for some riders – and we won’t go into names – but that’s the way that the TTT works now,” Armstrong said, referring to the team time trial. “With no disrespect, it’s difficult to make up that time.”
After Cancellara, the next four riders are from Astana: Armstrong, with the same time; Contador, 19 seconds back in third; 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloeden of Germany was fourth, 23 seconds back; and Levi Leipheimer of the United States was fifth, 31 seconds behind.
The teams set off one by one at seven-minute intervals in a race against the clock. The stage through sun-baked roads of Montpellier, near the Mediterranean, is among the flattest this year.
Cyclists try to ride single file to reduce wind drag and take turns in the lead to maximize efficiency and conserve energy. The first five riders record the same times, while laggards get individual times. All teams had nine riders except Quick Step; one member of the Belgian squad quit the race after a crash in Stage 2.
Armstrong said the many tight turns made for “tricky” riding. Three crashes marred the stage start – including one involving Menchov.
The question now is whether Armstrong’s legs can keep up when the three-week race on Friday heads toward three days in the Pyrenees after two mostly flat stages.
That’s when the Armstrong-Contador rivalry could emerge. They are both far better climbers than Cancellara, one of the world’s best time trial riders.
Next up is Stage 5, a 122-mile ride along the Mediterranean from Le Cap d’Agde to Perpignan.
Armstrong said he’s realistic about his chance of victory when riders reach the finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 26.
“It’s not going to be easy – I’m not going to get last – but it won’t be like 2004, 2005, 2001,” he said. “It’s going to be a hell of a lot harder than I expected. That’s as honest as I can say it.”
– AP Sportwriter Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.