Commentary

Now comes the tough part for Lance

Updated: July 7, 2009, 7:54 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

This is why I love cycling. The drama that unfolded during Tuesday's team time trial is what makes our sport great. To have the stage, and the yellow jersey, come down to two-tenths of a second was unbelievable.

Team Astana was in a class by themselves Tuesday. All of those talented riders -- Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden, Haimar Zubeldia -- are tough to beat. Technically, their ride was beautiful. It was a perfect blend of horsepower and experience.

The course was difficult technically, with a lot of ups and downs and turns at high speeds. It wasn't until riders got to the final 12 kilometers that you saw a truer team time trial course with a bigger road with little turns. This is why the teams that previewed the course multiple times had the most success Tuesday. Some of the teams that didn't take the time to preview the course? Well, that's an amateur, unprepared approach to the Tour; that's why you saw a lot of crashes from the earlier starters. It would be so easy to miss the small details if you didn't see the course a couple of times.

At first, I didn't know what the Tour officials were thinking when they first created this course, but in the end, the stage turned out to be beautiful. Maybe that's what they were looking for: a course that would force a true team effort on the road.

My hat goes off to Team Garmin. They went out with a real aggressive climb, but they may have gone too fast as some of their riders dropped from the pack. With this kind of course, you usually want to rotate only a few riders to the front to help conserve energy for the final push, but Garmin didn't go that route. Still, their final five riders were able to set the second-best time on the day, which really impressed a lot of people, including me.

I think Saxo Bank also did well on the day. They had their share of problems and a few close calls, but were still able to finish third on the day and keep Fabian Cancellara in the yellow jersey -- by a blink of an eye! They have to be happy with that finish; going into the Tour, they knew it would be hard to beat Astana, Garmin and Team Columbia in the team time trial. But given the finish, it made a difficult day easier to accept, especially since Fabian was still in the lead.

What about Lance?

I can't say I am surprised to see Lance Armstrong just a hair out of the overall lead. He looked at the race route and knew this would be his chance with the team he's on. I still believe his collarbone injury helps his overall Tour chances. If he was at full steam in the Giro, he might not be as hungry or as on form in the Tour (see: Denis Menchov).

Look, we're talking about Lance here; you can't count him out. Knowing him, he has to be a little disappointed he didn't take the yellow jersey Tuesday. Talking from experience, second place is a tough spot to be in at the Tour. Throughout my career, there were times when I was just seconds out of a yellow jersey; one year, I was in second for a week and a half and couldn't move into the overall lead. Being that close and not ever wearing yellow is a bummer to say the least. Those seconds between the lead and No. 2 are the hardest possible seconds to get.

What's next?

Friday's stage will be crucial. It's the longest stage of the Tour (139.2 miles) and it's the first mountain-top finish. Whoever wears yellow after that stage will wear it into the Alps. The distance and the climb to the finish will be a sign of who can win the Tour.

Heading into a stage like that, riders will be trying to recover over the next couple of days. It's been a stressful week for them up to this point. They arrived in Monaco for prerace warm-ups; the prologue is always stressful; then you add two more stages that were hot and windy before a taxing team time trial with a lot on the line. I think guys are going to have to cool their jets a little bit.

Team Astana will have to soon choose what's going to happen and who's going to be "the man." Friday's finish in Arcalis may answer that question. But let's not forget, Astana has four riders in the top five of the overall classification. They have so many cards to play. It's their Tour to win, or lose.

Having said that, while Armstrong has more experience, I still believe Contador is the overall better climber. I believe all the top contenders will be up on that final climb; I also hope to see Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and Liquigas' Roman Kreuziger up there, too. In the end, I think Contador will win the stage; he has the punch and the desire to put a stamp on the race and stall some of the talk of sharing leadership on the team.

As for me, now that my time trial work with Team Saxo Bank is on hold until Stage 18's individual time trial, I will be your armchair quarterback for the Tour. I'll be back with my take on Friday's pivotal mountain finish.

Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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