A tale of twos: Zabriskie's day ends in tragedy
It was a day that put one man on cloud nine and another below zero. The suspense and drama of today's team time trial couldn't have been written better by a Hollywood scriptwriter, as the last two teams to leave, Discovery Channel and Team CSC, raced each other neck and neck all the way to the finish. In the end, two seconds was all that separated the two best teams in the 92nd Tour de France.
That two second margin was enough to put the figure of Lance Armstrong in the maillot jaune, his Discovery Channel team once again riding to perfection, but up until the final kilometres, it appeared to be not quite perfect enough. Team CSC was riding with the power of the golden fleece, and at each time-check, they were ahead of their arch-rivals. But with just under two kilometres to go, a lapse of concentration saw the maillot jaune of David Zabriskie come to grief, as he catapulted into the barriers and saw his chances of another day in yellow ripped to shreds.
The team of 1997 Tour champion, Jan Ullrich, rode a very solid TTT to finish third, 36 seconds off Discovery's winning time, and Der Kaiser was in a considerably happier mood after the finish today than he was last Saturday, where he was passed by Armstrong in the opening time trial.
"We gave everything today; each one of us gave his best and I thought it was a great team time trial. Now, I have to look at the result," said Ullrich.
Added T-Mobile manager Olaf Ludwig: "That was a great performance of the team. I think nobody believed us capable of this especially after Saturday. We gained more than 20 seconds on Liberty from kilometre 25 to 47, so that was a very strong period of time for the team and [Tobias] Steinhauser had to let go. That doesn't mean he rode badly, neither did the others who came in afterwards."
Finishing 1'28 down and all on his own, Zabriskie was understandably in complete shock and speechless as to what happened. When Cyclingnews contacted Team CSC spokesperson Brian Nygaard later on, he said: "No-one really knows what happened. It happened so fast; all of a sudden, he [Zabriskie] was on the ground. He's in a state of shock right now and can't talk."
Team manager Bjarne Riis added that it was still too early to say if Zabriskie was okay, who, for the moment, is reported to have injured his left thigh and arm and also bruised some ribs. It is not yet known whether anything is broken until he is properly examined by the team doctor later this evening.
"I think we should have won today, but once again, Armstrong was the lucky guy. Obviously, the crash was what made the difference today," said Riis.
"I was confident that we could win today based on the previous time splits. When Zabriskie fell, it was an easy decision to keep going since that's what we had already decided beforehand. Dave is hurt, but I don't know how badly. Right now, it's hard to find anything positive at the moment, since this stage was one that we had really worked hard on. Everything went as it was supposed to until the very end. So this is where the team values we have built are going to save us. Now we have to do the job of mentally rebuilding the team's morale."
Armstrong had this to say on what may have happened: "I wish I could comment more, but I'll say that the TTT is so hard in the end, that everybody's on the limit; everybody's a little bit cross-eyed and you come into the city and there's all these turns and this whipping wind... it's easy to make a mistake like that.
"It's easy to see how it happened, and clearly it's bad luck for him. They [CSC] were flying, they were riding strong - it took everything we had to try and catch up to them. He's a great young rider, and somebody I suspect will be in yellow again in the future."
For Armstrong and his team, it was further confirmation that the six-time Tour winner is most definitely back to his best, and already appears to have no rival.
"It's a passionate event, it's a very hard event, so it's special for us," he said. "It's nice to win the third one - I know what it's like to be second."
Asked whether he had any doubts on his form leading up to the Tour, Armstrong said he always has doubts - but believes doubt has in part made him what is he today. "The least doubtful was in 2003 and you saw where they got me. Every other year, I've been nervous and insecure and full of doubt - and I think that's a good thing for a sportsman; there's always someone that wants your place, someone that's younger, stronger, hungrier... so it works better for me to be nervous and hungry."
Armstrong also dedicated the victory to his team-mate Viatcheslav Ekimov, who wasn't able to be at Lance's side as a consequence of a training crash a few months ago, and said 'Eki' was definitely missed in both strength and spirit.
"We definitely missed him today - there's no doubt. He loves this event, he's the best guy on the team in this event; he's not only the strongest, he's the steadiest - we do miss him."
As for the team's strategy over the coming days, and whether the team will defend the maillot jaune, Discovery team manager Johan Bruyneel gave a safe answer: "We'll think about that tonight. We are here to win the Tour de France and we will find the best strategy," he said.
"I think the advantage of [winning] the team time trial is that we now have a lot of guys in good position on GC, so we can play a little bit with that... Maybe the team keeps the yellow jersey, but not Lance - it depends on the next few days, but I repeat: our goal is to win in Paris, and if it means in a certain situation another guy takes the jersey or another team takes the jersey, then that's the way it'll be."
How it unfolded
With teams starting in reverse order on GC, it was Euskaltel - Euskadi starting off first, followed by Lampre - Caffita, Ag2R Prevoyance, Saunier Duval - Prodir, Cofidis, Davitamon - Lotto and Liquigas - Bianchi, and it was this seventh team who set the early best time of 1'13'05, six seconds faster than early pacesetters Davitamon-Lotto.
Cyclingnews followed the latter squad the entire distance, and it was clear the last 20 kilometres would be decisive. The first 45 kilometres were flat and non-technical, but from Onzain to the finish in Blois (km 67.5), the roads were filled with twists and turns, and short sharp rises on narrow streets - combined with prevailing crosswinds, it was going to be a real test of team unity.
Said Armstrong of the stage: "We knew there wouldn't be big time gaps today - you can't do 45 kilometres in one direction with a tailwind, with such a straight road, with perfect pavement and be 30, 40 seconds ahead of your chief rivals. We knew the race would come down to the last 20k, where you had some crosswinds and had some real hills, so we tried to focus on that and not lose too much time in the beginning."
The TTT is a visually spectacular event, and the crowds were out in their droves as each of the 21 teams zipped along the Loire Valley at speeds exceeding 60 kilometres an hour. Mild conditions greeted those at the start in the quaint town of Tours, and although showers were predicted later in the afternoon, the rain didn't eventuate.
As Bouygues Telecom, Francaise des Jeux, Domina Vacanze, Quick Step - Innergetic and Rabobank came in, the saying 'the total is greater than the sum of its parts' held true, with all five teams unable to beat the time of Liquigas - Bianchi, despite former Olympic pursuit champion Bradley McGee spearheading his FdJ train and world time trial champion Michael Rogers driving the Quick.Step bus.
The next team to come in, Illes Balears-Caisse D'Epargne, managed to better the boys on their Bianchis by 14 seconds, their time of 1'12'44 the new best mark. However, with the big boys yet to finish, it would be by no means the final best mark - a time close to one hour and 10 minutes would be necessary to take the day.
Credit Agricole upped the ante from Illes Balears by just under half a minute, before Liberty Seguros - Würth set a very competitive time of 1'11'32, 48 seconds faster than the green machine. Next in were Fassa Bortolo, but the Silver Train were two minutes off the pace of Liberty, until the T-Mobile Team bettered Manolo's boys in blue by 17 seconds, putting Der Kaiser and his guys at the top of the leaderboard.
And then there were four.
The bubbly boys from Gerolsteiner did okay, finishing on the same time as Illes Balears and giving them equal seventh place in the end, while Phonak went half a minute faster, although it was still a minute off the current best time of T-Mobile.
However, the biggest battle by far was being waged behind. At the second checkpoint in Onzain (km 45.8), T-Mobile, Discovery and Team CSC were all neck and neck, separated by a slender seven seconds - but coming in Blois, Discovery and CSC separated themselves from T-Mobile, as the two teams went à bloc.
Right up until the final kilometres, it looked as if CSC had done enough to keep their man Zabriskie in yellow, but just over a kilometre from the end, Dave Z had a lapse of concentration and clipped wheels with a fellow team-mate, which sent him spiralling into the barriers.
Thankfully, he didn't appear to be too badly hurt, although the maillot jaune was literally torn off his shoulders in the cruellest possible style. In the end, two seconds was all that separated Discovery and CSC, but Zabriskie ended up finishing the stage a further 1'26 back, and as a consequence, the golden fleece switched shoulders to six-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.
Stage 5 - Wednesday, July 6: Chambord - Montargis, 183 km
Another of the Tour's early stages for the sprinters, there are plenty of green jersey points on offer over a stage with only one Cat 4 climb - it's mostly flat, fast riding, and a day for one of the fast men to enjoy some time in the yellow jersey. In 2004 it was Thomas Voeckler who spent 10 days as the darling of France in the yellow jersey over the opening stages. The route sweeps further north and heads closer to its entry into Germany, with plenty to look at throughout the scenic Loir-et-Cher region - not that the riders will have much time for that, as average speeds of around 40-45km/h will prevent most from enjoying the sights. Although on a different route last year, Cofidis' Australian rider Staurt O'Grady took stage 5 in 2004 in the wet, but in dry weather this year it will most likely come down to another showdown between McEwen, Cooke, Hushovd and Boonen, and anyone else who wants to join the party.