US goes postal during team time trial

TOUR DE FRANCE: Lance Armstrong secured the leader's jersey for the first time after US Postal won the fourth stage race from Cambrai to Arras

AP , ARRAS, FRANCE

Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 23

It's the jersey Lance Armstrong covets and works so hard for: Garish yellow and awarded daily to the leader of the Tour de France.

Armstrong donned the jersey Wednesday for the first time at this Tour, when he and his team won a rain-soaked time trial. Then, the five-time champion said he's ready to surrender the cherished shirt -- at least temporarily.

The reason? Because defending the lead at this early stage of the three-week race would be too grueling. For Armstrong, there's just one place where wearing yellow really counts: At the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 25.

That would be Armstrong's sixth crown, a record in the 101-year-old race. The Texan took a big step toward that goal in Wednesday's team event, opening up important but not deadly time gaps over key rivals.

From here on, Armstrong will aim to prevent them from recovering the lost ground, and even look to extend his advantage when the Tour climbs into the Pyrenees at the end of week two, followed by the Alps.

But Armstrong's team can't keep tabs on all 183 riders still in the race. As long as key challengers don't zoom ahead, Armstrong indicated that he won't exhaust his teammates by making them chase down breakaways by second-tier riders at this stage -- even if their efforts earn them the honor of donning yellow for a day or two.

"This is a hard race to defend," said the 32-year-old savvy competitor. "We're not going to sacrifice the team to defend the yellow jersey in the north of France. The time to work and defend begins in the Pyrenees."

Last year, Armstrong's team surrendered the jersey to a French rider, Richard Virenque, for a day. Armstrong took the lead in the next Alpine stage and then wore yellow all the way to Paris -- 13 racing days in all.

With the win in stage four, Armstrong has earned 60 jerseys in his Tour career, including five as champion. But "I don't really think about those things," he said.

"The only real yellow jerseys that matter are the ones that the guy wears on the Champs-Elysees."

Were it not for new rules, Armstrong's squad could have done far more damage to rivals in Wednesday's race against the clock. His US Postal Service squad, driven on by Armstrong yelling encouragement, worked like a well-oiled machine, dominating the very technical event. He relished the ride.

"I was just smiling on the bike. It was like a dream," he said.

The next closest team of American rival Tyler Hamilton was 1 minute, 7 seconds behind. But because of the new regulations that limit the advantage gained by the winners, Hamilton lost just 20 seconds to Armstrong overall.

The T-Mobile squad, lead by 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, managed just fourth place, 1 minute, 19 seconds back. But Ullrich's loss was cut to 40 seconds by the rule-change.

Still, said Armstrong, ``twenty seconds or forty seconds is a significant amount of time.''

Organizers introduced the new rules to ensure that strong riders in weak squads weren't left too far behind by the team event, killing their overall chances and dulling suspense in the Tour early on.

"That's the rules and I can't change them," said Armstrong. "At least you have the consolation of knowing that your team was very strong."

Armstrong and his squad occupy the top five places overall -- a sign of their strength. Clad in blue, Armstrong and his teammates relayed each other along the 64.5km course from Cambrai to Arras, taking turns at the front of their line while the others slipstreamed behind.

They started slowly, coming through in fifth place at the first time check, but then picked up speed. Despite rain-slickened roads, they clocked an average speed of 53.71kph -- the third fastest ever. They celebrated with hugs and squad veteran George Hincapie gave a thumbs-up.

"It really was a special day," said Armstrong. "The team was incredible. The rhythm was perfect."

Overall, Armstrong now has a 36-second advantage over Hamilton, a former teammate now a big rival. His team was beset by punctures, but worked furiously to limit its losses.

"Nobody gave up, we fought till the bitter end," said Hamilton.

Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, also was slowed by punctures for his team and said he couldn't stop thinking about his crash in another rain-soaked time trial at last year's Tour that killed his hopes of winning, placing him second behind Armstrong yet again.

Now, after just five days of racing, he trails Armstrong by 55 seconds overall. But his team chief, Mario Kummer, said everything was still to play for.

"Fifty-five seconds behind is not little," he said. "But the Tour will be decided surely only in the last week."