In a two-day span at the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong proved to his doubters that he’s still a contender for victory despite nearly four years in retirement.
The seven-time champion, written off by most of the cycling experts before the race started in Monaco, went within a whisker of taking the yellow leader’s jersey from Fabian Cancellara after the impressive collective triumph of his Astana team in Tuesday’s team time trial.
A day after surging in a key breakaway to gain valuable time over his rival and teammate Alberto Contador, Armstrong moved up from third place to second overall — he only trails race leader Cancellara of Switzerland by a few hundredths of second following the fourth stage after erasing a 40 second margin.
“That’s the way it is. We did our best. At one point, we thought we had it [the yellow jersey], but if I look back on our performance ... we were as sound as we could be,” Armstrong said. “I have no regrets. I don’t look at that and lose sleep or get disappointed. That’s when they stopped the clock. This is a long race, maybe there’s one [yellow jersey] in my future.”
Astana was timed in 46 minutes, 29 seconds for the 39km ride in and around Montpellier. That was 18 seconds better than Garmin, with Saxo Bank third, 40 seconds behind.
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.
“That’s Swiss timing,” Cancellara said, laughing. “Time is on my side.”
On roads sometimes very tight on the outskirts of Montpellier, Armstrong took long relays and was always in front to guide his teammates when the course was dangerous. It was reminiscent of Armstrong’s dominance in the team time trial discipline at the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams for the last three years of his run of victories from 1999 to 2005.
“Well, what can I say? The team was simply awesome today. Consistent, fluid, mistake-free. We love this event and are stoked to win,” Armstrong said in his Twitter account. “Popo and Klodi were on fire,” he added, referring to teammates Yaroslav Popovych of Ukraine, and German Andreas Kloeden. “And they might need to repair the pavement on the sections where Alberto was pulling.”
At the Astana bus just after the stage, it was time for celebration. Armstrong hugged all of his teammates as a swarm of reporters gathered, prompting police to intervene to secure a path to the podium for the seven-time Tour champion and his colleagues.
Even Contador, who is said to have a strained relationship with Armstrong, was rejoicing at the win.
“I think that today we have to be very, very happy,” he said.
“We have distanced enough riders like [Carlos] Sastre, [Cadel] Evans, [Denis] Menchov and even the Schlecks [Andy and Frank]. It’s a pity we missed the yellow jersey. You always like to have it, especially Lance, with all it means for him.”
Astana’s performance dealt a blow to several title hopefuls.
Defending champion Sastre is 2:44 back; two-time runner-up Cadel Evans, whose team didn’t preview the time trial and had a catastrophic run marred by a crash, is 2:59 behind and Menchov is 3:52 back.
“OK it’s nice to win the stage, but I think today, the Tour de France is finished for some riders — and we won’t go into names,” said Armstrong. “With no disrespect, it’s difficult to make up that time.”