<
>

Armstrong's team dominates team time trial

7/8/2004

ARRAS, France -- It's the jersey Lance Armstrong covets and
works so hard for: garish yellow and awarded daily to the leader of
the Tour de France.

Armstrong slipped into the jersey Wednesday for the first time
at this Tour after he and his team won a rain-soaked time trial.
Then the five-time champion said he's ready to surrender the
cherished shirt -- at least temporarily.

The reason? Because defending the lead at this early stage of
the three-week race would be too grueling. For Armstrong, there's
just one place where wearing yellow really counts: at the finish on
the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 25.

That would be Armstrong's sixth crown, a record in the
101-year-old race. The Texan took a big step toward that goal in
Wednesday's team event, opening up important but not insurmountable
time gaps over key rivals.

From here on, Armstrong will try to prevent them from recovering
the lost ground, and even look to extend his advantage when the
Tour climbs into the Pyrenees at the end of week two, followed by
the Alps.

But Armstrong's team can't keep tabs on all 183 riders still in
the race. As long as key challengers don't zoom ahead, Armstrong
indicated he won't exhaust his teammates by making them chase down
breakaways by second-tier riders at this stage -- even if their
efforts earn them the yellow jersey for a day or two.

"This is a hard race to defend," the 32-year-old Armstrong
said. "We're not going to sacrifice the team to defend the yellow
jersey in the north of France. The time to work and defend begins
in the Pyrenees."

Last year, Armstrong's team surrendered the jersey to a French
rider, Richard Virenque, for a day. Armstrong took the lead in the
next Alpine stage and then wore yellow all the way to Paris _ 13
racing days in all.

With Wednesday's win, Armstrong has earned 60 jerseys in his
Tour career, including five as champion. But, "I don't really
think about those things," he said.

"The only real yellow jerseys that matter are the ones that the
guy wears on the Champs-Elysees."

Were it not for new rules, Armstrong's squad could have done far
more damage to rivals in Wednesday's race against the clock. His
U.S. Postal Service squad, driven on by Armstrong yelling
encouragement, dominated the very technical event. He relished the
ride.

"I was just smiling on the bike. It was like a dream," he
said.

Armstrong's overall lead was 10 seconds, but the next four spots
on the leader board were occupied by his teammates. The closest
non-team member was Spain's Jose Enrique Gutierrez, who was 27
seconds behind in sixth place.

Gutierrez rides for Phonak Hearing Systems, the same team as
Armstrong's American rival Tyler Hamilton, who was 36 seconds
behind.

As a team, Phonak trailed by 1 minute, 7 seconds, but because of
the new regulations that limit the advantage gained by the winners,
Hamilton lost just 20 seconds to Armstrong overall.

The T-Mobile squad of Armstrong's most feared challenger, 1997
Tour winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, finished fourth, 1 minute, 19
seconds back. But Ullrich's loss was cut to 40 seconds by the
rule-change.

Still, Armstrong said, "20 seconds or 40 seconds is a
significant amount of time."

Organizers introduced the new rules to ensure that strong riders
in weak squads weren't left too far behind by the team event,
killing their overall chances and dulling suspense in the Tour
early on.

"That's the rules and I can't change them," Armstrong said.
"At least you have the consolation of knowing that your team was
very strong."

Clad in blue, Armstrong and his teammates took turns at the
front of their line along the 40-mile course from Cambrai to Arras.

They started slowly, coming through in fifth place at the first
time check, but then picked up speed. Despite wet roads, they
clocked an average speed of 33.3 mph -- the third fastest ever. They
celebrated with hugs, and squad veteran George Hincapie gave a
thumbs-up.

"It really was a special day," Armstrong said. "The team was
incredible. The rhythm was perfect."

Hamilton's team was hurt by punctures but worked furiously to
limit its losses.

"Nobody gave up. We fought till the bitter end," said
Hamilton, a former teammate of Armstrong. "It was pretty rough."

Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, also was slowed by
punctures on his team. He said he couldn't stop thinking about his
crash in another rain-soaked time trial last year that ended his
hopes of winning, placing him second behind Armstrong yet again.

Now, after just five days of racing, he trails Armstrong by 55
seconds overall. But his team chief, Mario Kummer, said everything
was still to play for.

"Fifty-five seconds behind is not little," he said. "But the
Tour will be decided surely only in the last week."