Armstrong surges within a second of the lead
Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara of the Saxo Bank team narrowly kept the yellow jersey lead following the fourth stage, a 24.2-mile ride in and around Montpellier.
Astana needed to beat Saxo Bank by more than 40 seconds for Armstrong to take the yellow jersey. The seven-time champion started the stage in third place, and Astana exactly matched that 40-second deficit. Cancellara’s team finished third.
“That’s Swiss timing,” Cancellara said, laughing. “Time is on my side.”
Armstrong credited his teammates but acknowledged he had hoped to move in front after the first team time trial on the Tour since 2005.
“This is a little bit of a disappointment,” he said. “That’s cycling.”
The 37-year-old Texan said the many tight turns along the course made for “tricky” riding. Three crashes marred the start of the stage, including one involving Giro d’Italia winner Denis Menchov.
The U.S. team Garmin was second in the stage, 18 seconds after Astana, despite only five of the nine riders being able to keep up the pace.
The stage finished with a flair. At the last intermediate time check (19 miles), Astana was 41 seconds faster than Saxo Bank, putting Armstrong in the lead at that point and setting up the tense finale.
Armstrong and Cancellara share an overall time of 10 hours, 38 minutes, 7 seconds, although the Swiss rider was deemed a fraction ahead. Organizers examined Saturday’s opening time trial in Monaco that was won by Cancellara. Those results were calculated to the thousandth of a second.
After Cancellara, the next four riders are from Astana: Armstrong; 2007 winner Alberto Contador of Spain is 19 seconds back in third; 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloeden of Germany is fourth, 23 seconds back; and Levi Leipheimer of the United States is fifth, 31 seconds behind.
Astana also dealt a serious blow to some top challengers: Defending champion Carlos Sastre of Spain is 2:44 back; two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia is 2:59 behind; and Menchov of Russia trails by 3:52.
Menchov was trailing a Rabobank teammate when he misjudged a left turn and skidded into the barriers early in the stage. He scraped and bruised his arm.
“It was a slippery road,” said Menchov, also crashed in the final time trial of the Giro. “It’s nothing serious.”
Four riders on the BBox Bouygues Telecom team also crashed, as did Belgian rider Jurgen van den Broeck, a support rider to Evans on the Silence Lotto squad.
The teams set off one by one at seven-minute intervals in a race against the clock. The course through sun-baked streets of Montpellier, near the Mediterranean, is among the flattest this Tour.
Riders try to ride single file to cut down on wind drag and take turns in the lead to maximize efficiency and conserve energy. The first five riders record the same times while laggards get individual times. All teams had nine riders except Quick Step; one member of the Belgian squad quit the race after a crash in Stage 2.
Next up is Stage 5, a 122-mile ride along the Mediterranean from Le Cap d’Agde to Perpignan. The Tour ends July 26 in Paris.
Armstrong lashed out at former Tour de France boss Patrice Clerc on Tuesday, saying he should take responsibility for the doping scandals at the race during the American’s three-year absence.
Armstrong was responding to comments made by Clerc, the former head of Tour organizer ASO, who told French newspaper Le Monde last week that the seven-time champion’s return meant “reopening a troubled chapter of the Tour history.”
“Was the Tour and was ASO in a perfect situation when I was gone?” Armstrong said when asked about Clerc’s statement. “When you look at any company or any organization, and you have dissension among the ranks, corruption among the ranks, you have too look at the boss. He was the boss. Under his reign, and under his leadership, cycling was not perfect.”
Armstrong returned to the Tour de France competition this year after retiring following his seventh win in 2005. The American moved up to second place overall after Tuesday’s fourth stage, a 24.2-mile team time trial won by his Astana team.
In 2006, the race was tarnished by one of the biggest scandals in Tour history when Floyd Landis had his title stripped for testing positive for testosterone. The next year, leader Michael Rasmussen was sent home for lying about his whereabouts in pre-race anti-doping checks.
In 2008, six riders were caught doping, including third-place finisher and King of the Mountains winner Bernhard Kohl.
Clerc was replaced last year by Jean-Etienne Amaury, who said Armstrong would be welcome back this year if he met the criteria set by cycling’s world governing body.
“The question really has to be turned back to him (Clerc),” Armstrong added. “I understand he is upset that he no longer has the job. But ... I would turn the question around, and analyze the four years I was gone.”
Following his last Tour victory, Armstrong railed against the “cynics and the skeptics” who didn’t believe his triumphs were doping-free. A month after his retirement, French sports daily L’Equipe reported that Armstrong’s “B” samples from the 1999 Tour contained EPO—a banned blood-boosting hormone. The newspaper is owned by race organizer ASO.
Armstrong insisted he was the victim of a “witch hunt,” and a Dutch lawyer appointed by the UCI later cleared him.