Bobby Julich’s panic is obvious as he looks across to Jonathan Vaughters: “We’re not going fast enough. We need to push harder or we’ll lose the jersey.”
Vaughters nods and turns his attention back to the road ahead, pushes through to take his turn and increases the pace. On his wheel is Frederic Bessy, one of his Credit Agricole teammates. Behind him a young Thor Hushovd, Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady in the yellow jersey. Then Chris Jenner, Sebastien Hinault and Anthony Morin. The rain is beating down as the 2001 Credit Agricole team push themselves towards the first time check on the 67km course between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc.
Bessy, a journeyman Frenchman, looks down, pretending he hasn’t heard Julich’s last command but he knows that he can’t protest. He must bury himself for the team and the yellow jersey. Less than half an hour earlier Bessy had been sitting in the warmth of the team bus trying to focus on the task in hand. Credit Agricole were leading the race, with Stuart O’Grady sitting 18 seconds ahead of Laurent Jalabert on GC. However a host of teams including Lance Armstrong’s US Postal and the metronomic ONCE were hovering dangerously close with the general consensus that yellow would pass to Armstrong by the end of the day.
“I was so stressed that morning,” recalls Bessy. “I was one of the weak links in a team packed with rouleur and the only thing I could think about was how I would last until they dropped me. Usually the non-experts like me have to ride flat out for 25 kilometres and then they get dropped. But our manager Roger Legeay had a tactic against that tendency.”
Back out on the road Credit Agricole were closing in the first time check at 19.5 kilometers. Down to eight riders after one rider suffered a puncture the team were forced to carry on. Thor Hushovd leads them over the line and the remaining riders glance up at the clock. They’re eight seconds up.
“I remember looking up at the first time check, seeing we were fastest and I almost couldn’t believe it,” remembers Vaughters. “We were just doing what we’d trained to do and we weren’t carefully planning the splits, we were just going flash out.”
Team time trial underdogs
Prior to the Tour team boss Roger Legeay had taken his Tour line up to the Le Mans racing circuit in France. They perfected the art of team time trialing, practicing for scenarios such as punctures, riders being dropped and different formations. It was painstaking and meticulous but something Legeay was passionate about. He never demanded the win from his riders, just that they perform to their best ability. If they finished third but had given their all, then that was enough.
Yet despite all their preparation in Le Mans the team went into the team time trial as underdogs.
Julich who came to the race as the team’s GC hope remembers the atmosphere within the team. “We had the advantage of starting last but you look at the teams that were there and it was crazy, Postal, ONCE, Festina and we were just some little French team but we had a good pack of guys. Especially now knowing what we were up against. It was one for the good guys. We were the underdogs but the yellow jersey gave us extra morale.”
“If you just look at how we performed in the prologue we weren’t the strongest team,” says Vaughters, who now manages Garmin-Cervelo and meticulously works on his own team time trial strategy. “On paper we didn’t have the best team but we were riding well and we had the yellow jersey.”
At the half-way point Legeay pulls alongside the team who are now down to seven men with Bessy and Hinault both grimly hanging onto the train of five non-French riders by the skin of their teeth. His eyes flicker between each pedal stroke of his riders. It’s as if he can see every single movement in slow motion, each pedal stroke, each turn, even the force with which each rider grips the bars as they eke out every ounce of power.
“Legeay always loved time trials,” says Bessy. “He has many little tips to help us. We were able to ride ten millimetres in the slipstream without losing any gap. Every time a rider went down after his turn, Legeay would shout to give the right time to go back in the wheels. So we really could be focus on the effort.
Vaughters agrees with Bessy’s assessment of Legeay’s importance. “Roger was really good when it came to the TTT and what needs to be done. Whether a team should wait for a rider, he can see when a rider starts to struggle and whether he needs to get out of the rotation. It’s not about who is pulling the fastest on the front it’s about the guy coming onto the back and if he’s spending a lot of energy then you’ll fail. Roger was an expert in that.”
By the next time check at 45 kilometers Credit Agricole had extended their lead over ONCE, while US Postal’s chances of victory have severely diminished because of a crash. But with one final climb to come disaster strikes when Julich punctures at the very foot of the climb. The riders look at one another as the American comes to a standstill and Legeay jumps from the team car to fetch a new bike.
Julich remained calm and the riders ahead waited. “I changed my bike and caught them by the top of the climb and we just pushed the turbo all the way to the finish,” he says.
By now Hinault was a spent force, pulling through one final time before easing off and turning back to the team car to let Legeay know he had nothing left in the tank. With less than one kilometre to go it was Bessy’s turn to come through and with 500 meters remaining he swings off and watches as Vaughters, O’Grady, Julich, Hushovd and Voigt open their sprint for the line, for the victory and for the yellow jersey.
“I felt euphoric on the podium with all my teammates,” recalls Bessy. “A Tour de France stage victory always brings credibility to a domestique like me. My palmares was not that big and I knew than whatever happened later, it could at least include a big win.”
Jens Voigt who along with O’Grady will ride for Leopard Trek today in the 2011 Tour de France team time trial, believes that Credit Agricole had a special bond with their team.
“It was one of those rare moments when things just magically clicked. We had the five foreigners and we were at our best on that day and Stuey was in yellow. It was a bad day for us but we still pulled it off,” he says.
“It was this ‘us’ feeling of winning together. We felt it was our win, the really perfect team win for the mechanics, the managers, all of us. It’s still one of the best moments I’ve ever had in the sport.”
Hushovd, who Vaughters believes was the strongest rider that day, agrees with Voigt’s assessment.
“We had something special within the team and it’s still a very proud moment for me.”
At the finish all nine of the riders filled the podium and champagne was uncorked on the bus. Vaughters hardly touched alcohol back then and two glasses clearly had their effect.
“It was a jovial team, mixed but for the most part we were a happy bunch. I was pretty weird, Bobby’s weird. Then there’s Jens who was like the jolly green giant and then Stuey is just doing what Stuey does, so it was definitely a ragtag group of guys. It certainly wasn’t the well-drilled precision of Postal or ONCE. We just knew what we were doing in team time trials but it was definitely a funny crew.”
“We had a lot of champagne and I sang opera in front of French television which was totally ridiculous. I had two glasses and that was enough to get me totally blasted and I just started singing on television and to this day there are people in France who come up to me and remind me.”
“It’s always special to win as a team. It’s something different to winning as an individual and I have very fond memories of winning that day, of the guys that were there and how we treated each other.”
O’Grady kept his yellow for another stage before passing it to Voigt for one day but the Australian still feels indebted to his former teammates for the work they did on that rainy day in 2001.
“It was magical, it really was. The effort we put in, that’s what the word 'team' is all about. We put it all on the line for the yellow jersey and for ourselves and it paid off. My parents were there and it’s one of the proudest moments of my career. From time to time we still talk about that day because for us as a team it was just so special.