Boardman: 'US Postal masterful'

In the first of three exclusive columns for procycling, Chris Boarman looks back over the first week

In the first of three exclusive columns for procycling, Chris Boarman looks back over the first week
This year's Tour de France kicked off with the usual mix of new faces, hard luck stories and surprises. Twenty-three-year-old Fabian Cancellara was visibly shocked when he realised he had won his very first stage of his very first Tour (an experience I am familiar with!) and in doing so recorded the third fastest time ever. This was doubly impressive when one considers the cool, damp and windy conditions. Seemingly unfazed by the media hype surrounding his bid for a record sixth Tour victory, Lance Armstrong opened his account with a characteristically aggressive ride. In the first 10 minutes of the 2004 race, he succeeded in putting a quarter of a minute into all his major rivals, this can't have pleased Tyler Hamilton, who produced an equally passionate performance only to find himself in instant deficit to his countryman. The most curious ride in this opening time trial came from Jan Ullrich, whose performance in comparison looked down right sedentary. Although I still can't see what possible tactical advantage he may gain from this, I remain convinced his form is as good as it has ever been. With the prologue out of the way, the usual bun fight ensued as the sprinter types vied for short term custody of the maillot jaune, and during stage three many of the would-be yellow jersey types got caught out by pre-cobbles crashes. With the race hardly begun, a four-minute minute deficit here has already put paid to many GC aspirations. One of my favourite stages of this classic race, the team time trial, is now back as a regular feature, although with the introduction of the new TTT rules. I feel the organisation are somewhat guilty of trying to have their cake and eat it; wanting the spectacle but not the huge impact that this event can have on individual GC aspirations. With crashes and punctures aplenty, these rules, however confusing they were for the spectator, proved a godsend to just about everyone except US Postal, the only outfit that looked like a genuine team. At first glance it would seem the 2004 edition of the Grand Boucle has been one long run of luck for the American squad, but study things a little more closely and you'll see most of it they made for themselves. The tough, undulating terrain of the first week was seemingly designed specifically to prevent any single group dominance but US Postal found a way to turn that on its head. By allowing a carefully vetted break to gain more than 10 minutes on stage 6, they created at least three allies to help them control affairs until the mountains. On that rain-soaked stage Stuart O'Grady used their tactics to resurrect his own chances in the green jersey competition by taking a spectacular win. Although not the best sprinter on the race, he is a fighter and continued to turn adversity into opportunity all of the way to the first rest day of the race. Another former team-mate of mine, 'Arnie' Hushovd, also continues to claw his way back into contention for the sprinters prize; since we don't have a Brit in the race this year, it's nice to at least have some old mates to root for. Up until now US Postal's approach has been a masterful display of tactics and strength, clearly preceded by a lot of homework. However, during the next two weeks I'm sure they will have their share of misfortune and crises to manage. In a three-week race, it is almost inevitable; perhaps they will end up wishing that they too had got their bad luck out of the way early on like everyone else.
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