<
>

Astana shows strength in numbers

7/5/2009 - Olympic Sports

MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- Astana, a monolithic team said to be rent with fissures, presented a rock-solid face to the world in at least one way Saturday: execution. Four of its riders placed in the top 10 on the curtain-raising time trial of the Tour de France.

Lance Armstrong, who said he felt emotional rolling down the start ramp of the Tour for the first time since 2005, was upstaged in the standings by teammates Alberto Contador, Andreas Kloeden and Levi Leipheimer. But only 21 seconds separate that quartet, and it would be premature to read any pecking order into the finishing order.

Olympic time trial gold medalist Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland outclassed the field on the 9.63-mile course in stifling heat and humidity. Cancellara, who is as much of a bear as the one that decorates the crest of his native Berne, didn't seem to mind the conditions or the topography, including a steep Category 4 hill some thought might slow him. Instead, he charged to the finish line 18 seconds ahead of 2007 Tour champion Contador.

The Spaniard was clearly elated with his performance and gave Cancellara a high-five behind the podium. It's a good start if he is to retain the knighthood bestowed on him by Astana director Johan Bruyneel and fend off a possible challenge from Armstrong, the sport's longtime king. But Contador wouldn't tout himself in comments afterward.

"We're going to come together as a team to win this Tour," he said. "We're smart enough to know that if we want to win, we have to unite."

Leipheimer, who looked to be back in the form that earned him a pair of time trial wins at the Tour of California, went further. "The guys on this team, we like all this drama," he said. "We've been in this situation before, where we're the favorites and people are trying to knock us off our game and then we win."

Armstrong was the first Astana rider to start and the 18th of 180 men. While top riders generally get later starts so they can pace themselves against the best times and get feedback on the course from teammates, teams with more than one candidate for leader often spread out their starts. Contador started second-to-last in the field.

The seven-time Tour winner told ESPN.com earlier this week that the gauging of his strength relative to Contador's would begin on the first day of the race, but downplayed his expectations after he finished.

"I didn't have any big illusions," Armstrong said. "I didn't expect to win or to take the jersey. I didn't expect a super, super performance.

"I was nervous, which is logical with those years away. I didn't necessarily feel comfortable. … You can't replicate that intensity, that feeling in training and I certainly didn't replicate it the last four years, even in other races."

Another team with reason to be happy was Garmin-Slipstream, whose three time trial specialists, Bradley Wiggins, Dave Zabriskie and David Millar, placed within 48 seconds of Cancellara. Garmin, along with Team Columbia, has high hopes of winning Tuesday's team time trial and competing for the overall leader's yellow jersey in the first week.

British track cycling superstar Wiggins is concentrating on the road discipline for the time being and has shed weight and focused on improving his climbing. "I'm pretty pleased overall -- I did better than I thought I'd do on this course,'' said Wiggins, who finished third, just a second off Contador's time. It was a replay of sorts of the flat Paris-Nice time trial last March, when Contador upset Wiggins, finishing seven seconds faster over a shorter distance.

Garmin leader Christian Vande Velde, still mending after a brutal crash in the Tour of Italy, was grinning as he wheeled up to the team bus with a time that would hold up for 17th place, 57 seconds off Cancellara's pace.

"I didn't know how my body would react," said Vande Velde, who fractured five vertebrae, a rib and his pelvic bone in early May. "I didn't know if I'd be walking uphill. It really helps to know I'm doing well."

In what could be a preview of a closely contested race-within-the-race for Best Young Rider (25 and under) honors, Columbia's gifted young German rider Tony Martin and Czech talent Roman Kreuziger of the Italian Liquigas team finished a second apart in seventh and eighth place, respectively. Kreuziger's donning of the Tour's white jersey led Armstrong to mention on his Twitter feed that he had raced against Kreuziger's father.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.