Postal power gives Lance the leadClose
Heavy rain may have slowed US Postal's initial progress in the TTT, but once into their stride therePICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE No wonder Lance Armstrong and some of his US Postal team had misgivings about the Tour's new way of calculating the final standings in today's team time trial. Under the old system Armstrong would have been almost out of sight of some of his rivals, and getting that way for the rest of them. Thankfully for the watching public, if not for Armstrong and his team, the Tour's rejigging of the team time trial has kept the battle for the yellow jersey relatively open. Although Postal's final winning margin of 1-07 over Tyler Hamilton's Phonak team suggests a cakewalk, it was not that simple. Soon after Euskaltel started the time trial, just after two this afternoon, it began to drizzle. Within half an hour it was belting down, and the Basque team's mishaps of the day before which had placed them last, and therefore first off today, were starting to look like a stroke of unplanned genius. Alessio got inside Euskaltel's time at the first check, but as the rain intensified they fell away and so did most of the squads following them - literally in many cases. Hardly anyone had a trouble-free day, and most teams - including Postal who lost Benjamin Noval early on - will have tales of what might have been. Illes Balears fared much better than most and set a time to the first split that was never beaten. Indeed, for a period it appeared that a major upset might be in the offing as the main contenders came through well down on the Spanish team. T-Mobile had to wait for puncture victims Rolf Aldag and Giuseppe Guerini early in their ride and were only ninth at that check. CSC, one of the pre-stage favourites, were slower still after waiting for Jens Voigt, and even US Postal were only fifth fastest, already 37 seconds down on Illes Balears. But rather than intensify as had been forecast, the rain eased and eventually stopped, allowing the most-organised teams to perform at full pace. There were, almost inevitably on the still wet roads, punctures and crashes, but none appeared too serious. Three of CSC's riders including Ivan Basso went down at one point, leaving Basso needing a new bike, but they still battled back to finish fifth having been 12th at the first check. T-Mobile also boosted themselves well up the standings from that first checkpoint, failing by just four seconds to beat Illes Balears' time of 1-13-18. Hamilton's Phonak squad had an even more remarkable ride, staying consistently in contention throughout despite losing and waiting for riders on a number of occasions. They finished with just the required number of five riders, but still beat Illes Balears' time by eight seconds. But a second storm was gathering at the back of the field, as Armstrong and his buddies got the word that the caution of the first 19 kilometres had to be forgotten if they were to go anywhere close to repeating last year's win on this stage. They covered the second third of the course at an average of more than 54 kilometres an hour and even seemed to up this phenomenal pace over the final stretch. Armstrong, George Hincapie and the rest were all smiles as they finished, and these broadened when Tour debutant Noval, who crashed heavily yesterday, crossed the line within the time limit after 40 kilometres on his own to retain his place in the race. The only thing everyone else had to smile about was the Tour's tinkering with the timings, which prevented Armstrong being more than a minute clear of the contenders' pack after just five days of racing.