Farrar's win goes beyond finish line

In a context where "W" and "L" generally connote cold statistics, seldom has a "W" had such a poignant double meaning.

Perfectly positioned by three teammates, including overall race leader Thor Hushovd of Norway, Garmin-Cervelo's Tyler Farrar surged out of the bunch to capture Stage 3 of the Tour de France on July 4 -- the first American to earn a win on Independence Day.

After crossing the finish line, the 27-year-old from the Seattle area lifted his hands, spread his fingers and touched the tips of his thumbs together to form a W in honor of his late friend Wouter Weylandt, who died after crashing at the Giro d'Italia in May. The two athletes had become close in recent years after Farrar moved to Weylandt's hometown of Ghent, Belgium, and they often trained together.

"It was an idea that came to me when I was out training," Farrar said of his gesture, speaking to ESPN.com by phone. Although there's little solace to be found two months after such a grievous loss, Farrar said he did want to express his affection for Weylandt to the world. "There's certainly not a bigger stage to pay tribute to someone," he said.

Farrar also lauded the trio of veterans who formed a launching system to deliver him to the line: Hushovd, David Millar of Great Britain and New Zealand's Julian Dean, the last lead-out man. Their crisp execution and timing enabled them to overcome HTC-Highroad and its celebrated British sprinter Mark Cavendish, who has 15 Tour stages to his credit.

"We've been chipping away at this since 2009 and had a lot of close calls, but never quite got it right," said Farrar, who had three previous second-place finishes at the Tour. "If you watched the sprint, we didn't play off HTC. We rode our own sprint. You have to ride to win; you're less likely to succeed if you play off someone else."

The stage win also demonstrated that Farrar and Hushovd intend to make good on their pledge to work for each other in this race.

Hushovd signed with Garmin late last season when a partnership deal was struck between the U.S. team and the Canada-based bike manufacturer. Farrar is under contract with Garmin through the 2013 season. Pairing them in races appeared to create a challenging dynamic, as the two men's skills overlap to some extent. Both are powerful sprinters and have the ability to compete for classics-style races. The fact the two will divide up stage win targets probably makes the green (points) jersey an unrealistic goal.

Roughly speaking, Farrar has the edge in pure speed on flat finishes, while the 33-year-old Hushovd, who has won eight individual Tour stages and is the reigning road world champion, has evolved into a more versatile rider who has prevailed in breakaways and on short uphill finishes.

"This just shows what a class act Thor is," Farrar said. "He's the world champion, in yellow. He could easily have said, 'I'm not doing the lead-out,' and he would have been perfectly justified in saying that.

"There was always the potential that [dividing sprint chances] wouldn't work, but we're both reasonable people. We each have less total opportunities, but on the days when it is our shot, look at the lead-out we're going to get. It's a compromise, but the other side of it is that I'm going to kill myself for him on the days when he has an opportunity."

Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters said he backed off and tried to give Farrar space after Weylandt's death, but "I never really doubted he'd be ready for the Tour, to be frank. He really loves racing a bike."

After Farrar began training again, Vaughters entered him in the Criterium du Dauphine -- a Tour tuneup in the Alps -- to get big mileage into his legs, then almost immediately sent him to a small race in the Netherlands with the aim of getting Farrar a win and renewed confidence. "It seems to have worked," Vaughters said.

The win was the first individual Tour stage victory for the Colorado-based Garmin-Cervelo team, which has had a sensational 48 hours after finishing first in the team time trial Sunday to propel Hushovd into the yellow jersey.

Farar becomes the 10th American rider to win a Tour de France stage (Floyd Landis would be the 11th, but was stripped of his result following his doping conviction) and is in an even smaller subset of sprinters to do so. Davis Phinney notched a sprint win in 1986. The following year, his 7-Eleven teammate Jeff Pierce won the prestigious final stage on the Champs-Elysees -- which normally finishes with a bunch-sprint -- in a breakaway by one second. Farrar is also the second U.S. rider to win stages in all three Grand Tours, along with Garmin teammate Dave Zabriskie.

His mother, Cindy, watched the end of the stage inside the team bus. She was elated to see her son accomplish something she said he had dreamed about since he was 12.

"An American winning on the Fourth of July?" she said. "Could it get any better?"

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.