Lance rueful about TTT timings

Lance Armstrong tonight looked forward to his 60th day in the yellow jersey after another impeccable

Lance Armstrong tonight looked forward to his 60th day in the yellow jersey after another impeccable

It was a familiar figure, in familiar wrapping, who beamed out at the Tour de France press corps in the northern French town of Arras tonight. Visibly delighted with US Postal’s second team time trial win in consecutive years, Lance Armstrong had regained the yellow jersey which – if you consider that he had politely declined to wear it in Saturday’s prologue – he had only ‘lost’ for three days. It might have been even better for Armstrong. Had the team time trial been ridden according last year’s rules, with time distances not subject to the event’s new, retrospective handicapping system, Armstrong would have taken over a minute off Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton. Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo would have conceded over two minutes each. In the event Hamilton lost 20 seconds, Ullrich 40, Roberto Heras 1-10 and Iban Mayo 1-20. “Unfortunately, that’s the rules,” said a rueful Armstrong, who now heads George Hincapie by 10 seconds in a rash of five US Postal riders at the top of the general classification. “It was a lot of effort for just 20 seconds. Nevertheless, knowing that my team is so strong is a major consolation. “This is a special feeling,” Armstrong continued. “The team time trial has always been my favourite event. I’ve loved it ever since I rode in the junior world championship team time trial in Moscow in 1990. It’s an amazing and very tough event. The team with the strongest individual riders doesn’t always win.” US Postal’s display was a collective tour de force and a triumph of prior planning. Noting in advance that the second half of the 64.4km course would be ridden into a headwind, team directeur Johan Bruyneel instructed his strongest riders to be economical with their efforts early on. As a result Armstrong saw most of the first, sodden 20kms from near the back of the Postal train. At the first split, after 19km, US Postal were only fifth, 37 seconds behind Illes Balears. Then Armstrong and George Hincapie entered the fray. By the time Hincapie beckoned his team captain through to accept the plaudits on the line, not only had US Postal overturned the deficit, they had covered the ground in over a minute less than closest challengers Phonak. “George wanted me to come through and shake his hand,” Armstrong recalled. “But on wet cobbles I wasn’t ever going to risk that. I was too worried about crashing. George is great, my best buddy. He and Ekimov are always in the right position, they never make mistakes. George has been there for all five of my Tours and I think that says a lot about his contribution… I sometimes look at other teams, see how they don’t laugh or joke at the dinner table, and feel very lucky to be in this team. The relationships between team-mates affect the way you race. “Today was a much more important day than yesterday,” Armstrong, who will spend his 60th day in the Tour’s yellow jersey on tomorrow’s stage between Amiens and Chartres. “Today I took 20 seconds off Tyler [Hamilton] and 40 off Jan [Ullrich]. Yesterday Iban Mayo was unlucky: he crashed at the worst possible time. It was an incredibly nervous stage, with riders flying left and right on the pav. I’ve never seen anything like it. Don’t think, though, that Iban Mayo’s Tour is over. He’ll come back really strongly, especially in the Pyrenees.” While Mayo is left nursing a 5’27” deficit from Armstrong tonight, the fact that 18 riders lie within one minute of the lead make it likely that the yellow jersey is paying the American only a passing visit. Armstrong acknowledged this to the media. He also hinted that US Postal’s defence over the next few days may not be the most cut-throat. “I would like to hang on to the jersey, but if it isn’t in the interest of the team we won’t defend it,” Armstrong admitted. “I have to consider the strength of the team in the final half of the Tour. I certainly won’t sacrifice them for the sake of keeping the yellow jersey until the mountains.”