|Wednesday, July 9
Victory fortifies Armstrong's position in Tour
SAINT-DIZIER, France -- Lance Armstrong and his teammates found another reason to raise their glasses for a toast at dinner.
The U.S. Postal Service squad won a team time trial at the Tour de France for the first time Wednesday, leaving Armstrong in second place overall and in good position to win his fifth straight title as the punishing Alps loom.
"Last year, and in previous years, we didn't win the time trial, and it was a really unhappy feeling at the dinner table,'' Armstrong said.
"We were asking ourselves why we couldn't do it, so this time we just said, 'Come on, let's do it, we've got to do this.' It will be a happy dinner table tonight.''
Cycling's premier event began in earnest with the team time trial, and the machinelike performance by the Postal Service team in the 43-mile race lifted Armstrong from 12th place.
"I'd never won this discipline before,'' the Texan said. "It was quite a hard course, with the wind -- lots of wind. ... It's a very, very hard discipline.''
The results in the team time trial, in which cyclists race against the clock, left U.S. Postal -- nicknamed the "Blue Train'' -- with the top eight finishers overall.
Armstrong's teammate, Victor Hugo Pena, claimed the yellow jersey and became the first Colombian to hold the overall lead in the Tour's 100-year history.
"Sure, I'll be the one wearing the yellow jersey,'' Pena said. "But this is a victory for the team -- it's one of the best teams that's ever existed.''
Pena's total time is 13:44:44, with Armstrong one second behind. The next six spots belong to U.S. Postal: Viatcheslav Ekimov, George Hincapie, Jose Luis Rubiera, Roberto Heras, Pavel Padrnos and Floyd Landis.
"The plan stays the same,'' Hincapie said. "We work for Lance.''
Pena, a former national champion swimmer, leads Armstrong by a second because he was that much faster than the Texan in the Tour's first leg -- a sprint through Paris last Saturday.
"I have the jersey now, but we'll give it to him later,'' Pena said.
U.S. Postal won in 1 hour, 18 minutes, 27 seconds in a race that began in Joinville on a hot, sunny day.
The squad holds a lead of 30 seconds over the second-placed ONCE team and 43 seconds over Bianchi. Both squads have riders who could threaten Armstrong's quest for another title.
In 2002, U.S. Postal was second in the team time trial, 16 seconds behind ONCE.
"It took us four years to win,'' Hincapie said. "Today is a great day for us.''
Until now, Armstrong had largely saved his strength, trying to avoid accidents in the relatively flat and fast early stages. The time trial was a way to build a lead over his rivals before the three-week Tour heads into the Alps on Saturday.
Armstrong, who excels in the mountains, is aiming to match Spanish great Miguel Indurain's record of five straight wins.
"This is simply the proof that when he wants to be, Armstrong can also be the best teammate in the world,'' Pena said.
After the time trial, 1997 Tour winner and potential challenger Jan Ullrich of Bianchi was 12th overall, 38 seconds behind Armstrong.
Two other key rivals, ONCE's Joseba Beloki and Telekom's Santiago Botero, were ninth and 29th. Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni was a whopping 3:08 behind in 106th place.
In the time trial, individual racers get their team's time. That's a big disadvantage for cyclists on weak squads.
"It's either a gift or a curse, as I always say,'' Armstrong said. "I'll take the gift.''