It was a time trial so Lance Armstrong, the old man of peloton, turned back the clock.
Stage 4’s team time trial was a magnificent effort by Armstrong’s entire Astana team, as they crushed the field and eliminated a number of serious contenders. It was Postal and Discovery deja vu.
The French call it the race of truth and there were many truths. First, Lance Armstrong is back with a vengeance, a mere .22 seconds from the yellow jersey. Only a herculean effort by Fabian Cancellera to carry his Saxo Bank team for the last 10k saved the maillot jaune.
Armstrong rode like a man possessed, and as the intermediate time checks came in, he drove his Astana team like the days of old. This was not a man who claimed he was just here fund raising and having fun. He and Contador saw the opportunity to destroy the other contenders and they took it.
The damage was clocked and irrefutable. Last years runner-up Cadel Evans, he of the weak Silence Lotto team, already 2:59 behind. Carlos Sastre, last years’ winner at 2:44 back. Giro winner Denis Menchov, out of commission at nearly 4 minutes. Cancellera clings to yellow but the next 4 riders on GC are from team Astana. It was a brutal beating, physical, mental and tactical. The kind Lance used to hand out in the Alps and Pyrenees.
There are arguments and scenarios but realistically only three riders have the talent, team strength and track record to even remotely challenge Armstrong and Contador for yellow. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) is 1:41 off the pace and has a tough squad and savvy manager in Bjarne Riis. Michael Rodgers (Columbia) is at 1:32 but usually cracks or crashes in the tour. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) is in a good position at 1:16 but the severity of his recent Giro injuries and subsequent lack of training make the tour mountains a very tall order.
The Tour de France is now an Astana-only affair: Armstrong and Contador. Will experience or youth win the yellow jersey? Will Astana blow apart with internal battles? Will Johan Bruyneel be able to control his two super-stars? The high mountains will decide.
After the stage, Armstrong admitted that his comeback was harder than he thought. But one thing is as certain as it was during Armstrong’s seven tour wins: time is on his side. He’s turned back the clock again.