Okay, I have to start today with a cranky old man rant. (Begin rant). I must say that today was an amazingly exciting stage. There were crashes, some teams started strong and faded, some had mechanicals and had to slow down, some rallied, some bonked, and it was a thrill a minute for the entire stage. However, at the end of the day, all the drama of the stage and the work of the riders didn't amount to a whole lot. Why? Because the new rules suck. The US Postal Service won the stage by 1' 07" over 2nd place Phonak, but Lance Armstrong only gained 20" towards the General Classification on Tyler Hamilton. He only gained 30" on the riders from the 3rd place Illes Balears squad, 40" from the 4th place T-Mobile squad, etc. That's the way the new team time trial rules go. Hamilton, despite only beating Mancebo by 8" today, gets a 10" cushion over the little Spanish climber. Though Ullrich's T-Mobile squad finished 1' 06" ahead of Liberty Seguros, Jan only gained 30" on Heras because of the new rules. I don't know, maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think if you're going to have a time trial, it should be a freakin' time trial. Today wasn't a time trial: it was a 64.5km bonus sprint. If this is how they're going to run the team time trial, maybe they should just do some other kind of stage instead next year. (End of rant).
Golden Hams of the Day
Ham-Gazers of the Day
- Tyler "Nails" Hamilton and his Phonak Hearing Systems squad. Today, "Nails" showed what a great leader he is. Early in the stage, one of his mates went off the back with a problem. Tyler himself sat up and drifted back to help his man regain the group. Later, Tyler was forced to push the group onward as more men had mechanical problems; with quite a ways left to go in the stage, they only had the minimum of five men left in the group. Despite being undermanned, Tyler and his remaining men (Oscar "Flying Elf" Sevilla, Santos Gonzalez, Bert Grabsch, and Jose Enrique Gutierrez) pounded it home faster than any other team except US Postal. Illies Balears, T-Mobile, and Liberty Seguros all finished with more men, but they couldn't match the power of this little five-man engine that could. While finishing 2nd at 1' 07", Hamilton only lost 20" to Armstrong and now sits in 8th on GC at 36". More importantly, Tyler showed how much power he and his teammates have in their legs. In my book, that makes him the lead contender in the race to dethrone the defending champ.
- Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong and his men from the United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor. They started slow with the tailwind, but as the course got tougher and the Posties turned into the headwind, they just flat blew everyone else's doors off. "Gorgeous" George Hincapie, Viatceslav "The Pensioner" Ekimov, "Pretty Boy" Floyd Landis, Jose Azevedo, "Handy" Manuel Beltran, Jose Luis "The Punisher" Rubiera, and Pavel "The Gavel" Pardnos flat put the wood to the rest of the field. Benjamin Noval, who was in that crash yesterday, was dropped early, but he rode his own tempo and finished in the time limit. While Armstrong only gained a fraction of the time he should have won due to the new rules, he and his team delivered an important psychological blow to the rest of the teams in the field. With more rainy, miserable days ahead, Lance is smiling as he wears his Yellow Jersey. The nearest non-Postie is only 27" away (Gutierrez from Phonak), but "El Jefe" is feeling good and his team is clicking on all cylinders.
- Francisco Mancebo and his Illes Balears-Banesto squad. While populated by climbers, this team showed their strength by setting all the early marks as they rode to 3rd at the end of the day at 1'15". Mancebo is now only in 19th on GC at 1' 01", but for the little climber this is a huge accomplishment. He has kept himself at the front of the race, survived the dangerous stages, and came through the TTT in the thick of the GC fight. If he can continue to stay out of trouble until they hit the mountains, he will be a serious threat to land in the top five come Paris.
- CSC and Rabobank. Despite suffering crashes, both squads rode well today to keep their GC men in good position for a run at the top five. CSC came in 5th at 1' 46", and Rabobank crossed the line in 6th at 1' 53". For CSC, Voigt is now in 11th on GC at 43", Julich is 18th at 1' 00", and Ivan Basso is 26th at 1' 17". For the Rabos, Leipheimer is a strong 21st at 1' 08" and Boogerd is 27th at 1' 25". While they lost time to Armstrong, Hamilton, Mancebo, and Ullrich, they didn’t lose nearly as much as they could have. At the same time, they put some time into men like Heras. Rabobank will be feeling pretty good with how things turned out on this treacherous course today. CSC, on the other hand, will be a bit disappointed, as they felt they had a shot at winning the stage. Also, their climber and GC threat Carlos Sastre finished a bit behind his mates and was given his actual time, 1' 49" down on US Postal. This dropped him down to 36th at 2' 02", which is a catastrophe for the Spanish star.
- Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich and his T-Mobile squad. They had some problems with mechanicals and lost a couple of riders, but they still rode fairly well to finish 4th at 1' 19" behind US Postal. Ullrich only lost 40" to Armstrong on GC, and he now sits in 16th on GC at 55". What may prove more significant is that Ullrich lost 20" to Hamilton even though the team finished only 12" behind Phonak. That will be a source of minor frustration for the big German. Still, despite the minor setback today, Ullrich is perfectly positioned at this point in the race.
- Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras and his Liberty Seguros squad. No matter how many times Manolo Saiz screamed "Venga!," the new squad couldn't live up to the results of their ONCE predecessors. They finished in 7th at 2' 25" behind US Postal, and Heras lost important time to his main GC rivals. Heras is now in 34th at 1' 45" behind Armstrong. While this is a relatively slim margin when you think about Heras' talent on the climbs, it is still a long ways to be down on a man like Armstrong.
- Michele Scarponi (Domina Vacanze). Of the contenders for the top ten on GC, Scarponi had perhaps the worst day as his team finished a dismal 16th at 4' 22". This dropped him to 55th on GC at 2' 47". He will have to have his best form in the mountains if he hopes to climb his way up the GC ladder now.
- Iban Mayo and Euskaltel-Euskadi. Actually, all things considered, the Basque men did pretty darned good today. They held the early lead, and by the end of the day they were a respectable 8th at 2' 35". Given the fact that they are a man short and were involved in that crash yesterday, this is a great showing for the men who expect to really shine in the climbs. Mayo is now in 92nd at 5' 27", and with his climbing ability, a top five finish is still a realistic possibility. He'll just have to stay out of trouble and heal his wounds for the next few days before the mountains hit.
- Gilberto "G-Man" Simoni (Saeco). Like Sastre, Simoni straggled in a bit behind his teammates because of a problem in the final corner. The gap meant that Simoni was given his real time – a deficit of 2' 42" – instead of the deficit of 1' 30" given to his teammates. That one slip cost him maybe five seconds, but under the new rules it really cost him 1' 12". Simoni now sits in 70th place at 3' 22" instead of at 2' 10". This is yet another example of why the new rules are not so good. For Simoni, this will be a big blow to his GC hopes, which is a real shame given how he rode the cobbles yesterday and the rest of the race so far.
Crazy Jane's Le Tour Delicieux
Well, I guess it's no secret who the strongest team in the Tour de France is, and there's no way I can pick just one posterboy today. How about all of these bike monkeys:
Photo by Graham Watson, and courtesy US Postal-Berry Floor
I'll leave the ranting about serious things like rules and whatnot to my esteemed colleague, and just say that I love the team time trial because it's beautiful to watch - delicieux, even - but more than that, it's a demonstration of cooperation and teamwork that never fails to render me senseless with admiration. As we bike faithful know, a successful Tour de France team with GC aspirations has to include riders with a wide range of skills and strengths, and while they need the big hammers, they also need the little pixies who float of the mountainsides; the key to the Team Time Trial is maximizing the strength of the entire team, which mean the big boys have to carry the little ones, and that just warms the cockles of my girlish heart.
US Postal did a beautiful time trial today, and from the long, smooth line of their now-legendary blue train, to that fabulous red stripe at the bottom of their shorts, and those fetching matching shoe covers, those boys were in fine form. The team love-in that ensued at the finish was one of the most charming things EVER. I think it was our first real look, for 2004, of Chechu Rubiera's glorious smile, and as absolutely everyone knows, big smiles make a handsome men even handsomer. Nice work, Postmen. The big man's in yellow, but there's a long way to Paris. Lance, here's all I'm asking: if you're going to give it up, can you please give it to George? If you ask me, Johan Bruyneel oughta stay up all night jimmy-riggin' up a plan that can make that happen, because I think George would look tremendous in yellow, and he totally deserves it.
The other big heroes today, in my expert opinion, were Tyler Hamilton and the Phonak Team. Tyler, if we can all cast our minds back to last year at this time, may be small in stature, but he is a huge stud, and he showed real leadership on the roads today, even dropping back personally to pace a beleaguered teammate back into the fold. Nasty weather no doubt contributed to a whole host of mechanical troubles and flat tires for the Phonak boys, and by the end, they were reduced to the bare minimum of only 5 riders, but they held it together despite that huge disadvantage, and put in the closest time to Postals untouchable ride. Tyler rules, and he's obviously got a team with some guts. Plus, they have that apple-cheeked little Spaniard Oscarlito Sevilla, whose charming teenaged face we did see today. I'll say no more, except: bring on the mountains.
White Jersey Watch has sad news: Fabian Cancellara's team was fined 1 minute today for some dumb infraction, and had a less that stellar time trial, leaving T-Mobile's Matthias Kessler takes over the Maillot Blanc. Matthias, don't feel slighted, anyone would be hard-pressed to match the charm that's gone before!
Finally, I can't let this stage go by without mentioning Phil Ligget's suggestion that he might want to ditch Paul Sherwen for Sheryl Crow, since she's better looking. Phil, I beg to differ! Paul Sherwen is delicieux!