There's something vaguely Heraclitian about the Tour de France. Time passes, the riders change, perpetual flux abounds, but the superstructure remains more or less the same. Recurrent themes and kinds of stages and places emerge, but at the end of the race, it's an awful lot like what has come before. More to the point, maybe the Tour de France is like a hall of mirrors, sans smokethe riders need their lungs after all.
If this is the case, then today's team time trial (Stage 4), of 67.5 km, from Epernay to Chateau-Thierry, through the bubbling heart of ChampagneLand, is perhaps the aggrandized and distorted reflection of Saturday's Prologue in Luxembourg, only a whole lot more cooperative, racy, and sexy.
The gist of such a stage is this: each team rides together, starting at five minute intervals, and their final time is determined as the fifth person crosses the finish line. Teams try to stay together for as long as possible, but if lesser riders can't hang on, or puncture tires (especially late in the stage), they are often dropped. Such was the fate of Michael Sandstod, a time trial specialist on the favored CSC-Tiscali team.
Through the first half of today's race, CSC was on pace to win, but during the demanding middle section, with its steep 212-meter climb to Igny-Le-Jard, Sandstod found himself with a flat. In a moment of indecision the team appeared content to leave him, before eventually waiting for their man to rejoin, thereby costing themselves well over twenty seconds.
Though they stormed to the finish, pulling back much of this time, they were unable to overtake Spain's ONCE-Eroski team, who, despite fading at the end, hung on for the victory, sixteen seconds ahead of Lance Armstrong's US Postal Service team. In a show of [ed. note: allegedly] drug-induced strength and cancer-surviving willpower, Armstrong literally dragged his team through the stage's more difficult portions. While his teammates stayed at the frontbreaking wind for the othersfor only six to eight seconds, the ever-gaseous Armstrong led the charge often for more than twenty seconds at a time. For his effort, USPS came in second place, thirty seconds ahead of CSC-Tiscali and sixteen seconds behind ONCE. These were the three favored teams, and they performed as expected.
More disappointing were the showings of the German Telekom team, who finished 12th, 2:47 behind the leaders, and the French Credit Agricole team, a favored contender for today's stage and winner of the team competition in last year's race, who finished 2:28 off the winning pace, good for 11th place. The poor performance was especially damaging to the struggling Christophe Moreau. Initially considered a threat to Lance Armstrong in the general classification, insofar as they exist in this year's race, Moreau lost 3:20 on the first stage, after a series of crashes and mechanical problems. After today's stage, he finds himself 6:03 behind the leader and 5:56 behind Armstrong. Though a top ten finish is possible, a win or even a spot on the podium in Paris is now out of the question. Equally disappointing today, at least for the Germans, was Telekom's Eric Zabel, and his relinquishing of the yellow jersey and the overall lead it signifies.
After today's stage, two Spanish riders from ONCE are in the top two spots, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, the leader, and Joseba Beloki, who is four seconds behind. Trailing Beloki by three seconds, and now in third place, is Armstrong. Today's team time trial was the first chance the major riders got to put some time between themselves and their rivals. Indeed, the boys from ONCE, USPS, and CSC-Tiscali capitalized. All are strong time trialing teams and were thus able to put between 1:30 and 2:00 on the more mountain oriented teams, such as Rabobank (led by the strong climbers Levi Leipheimer and Michael Boogerd), Domo-Farm Frites (home to Richard Virenque, who should make his presence known in the mountains), and Kelme-Costa Blanca (with two serious challengers, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla). The next big shake-up will come during Stage 9, Monday, when the riders undertake the first of two major individual time trials that will finally begin to separate the field in lasting ways.
Ah, the recurrent time trial. The tour started with an aria of a new century of cycling in the form of a seven km Prologue time trial on July 6. While the technical nature of the coursewith its many hairpin turns, abundant cobblestones, and climb to the finishfavored a prologue specialist, Lance Armstrong, starting last, bested everyone by completing the short jaunt in 9:08.73 for an average speed of 45.92 km/hr. Not bad. Most of the other major contenders were within twenty or so seconds of the winning time. Armstrong's victory was a small surprise, but a shock to no one. The shock came during his post-race interviews, with Armstrong responding to questions in fluent French. A small gesture, but an important gesture.
Despite taking over the leader's yellow jersey, Armstrong made it clear that he and his team had no intention of defending it, which is to say, in the coming days, they will not chase down breakaways in order to protect the minimal lead or compete in the mid-stage time-bonus sprints. Proving good on his promise, Armstrong relinquished his lead on the undulating first stage, which again began and ended in Luxembourg. The powerful sprinter Eric Zabel was itching for a victory and a shot at the race lead, which would have made quite a birthday present for the imposing German, but with under a kilometer to go and the main field surprisingly together, given the rolling terrain covered, 23 year-old Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati (team Lampre) burst from the front. Pedaling furiously, Bertogliati gained enough time on the stunned peleton to fend off the hard charging Zabel. In the process, he took the stage and the race lead. Armstrong dropped to third, Laurent Jalabert, second to Armstrong in the Prologue, maintained his position, and Eric Zabel moved up to eighth.
With the tour heading into western Germany for Stage 2, Zabel was looking for a win and the lead. He was denied both. After a long breakaway failed near the end of this rather dull flat stage, the Spanish rider and current world champion Oscar Freire beat out Zabel, who took third behind Australia's Robbie McEwen. Bertogliati maintained his lead, now just two seconds, over the now points-leader and green jersey wearing Zabel.
Always the John Adams to someone else's Thomas Jefferson, Zabel took second again on Stage 3, as the tour moved west across northern France, from Metz to Reims. After a long and ultimately unsuccessful breakaway by the irrepressible Jacky Durand, McEwan again beat Zabel at the line. This time Zabel's second place, along with the sprint time bonuses, pushed him into the leader's yellow jersey.
Zabel did not hold the lead long, losing it in today's team time trial. It is unlikely that he, or any other sprinter will regain it during the remainder of the race. Odds are De Galdeano and ONCE will keep the lead until Stage 9's time trial. In the meantime, the sprinters will duke it out for mid-stage mini-sprints and stage wins, and the lesser riders will continue to embark on long, usually ineffective breakaways. Consider it a moment of reprieve before the true madness of the Tour de France unleashes itself, both on the riders and the many many American viewers on Monday. Until then, enjoy the wine and try to stop the rising tide of conformity, now manifesting itself as a dangerously pervasive and derisive form of Francophobia.