Tour de France analysis: Why Contador’s chances rose when Armstrong missed yellow

Just as he was on Monday, Lance Armstrong was all smiles at the end of the Tour de France team time trial stage in Montpellier, but on reflection the fact he did not take the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara will be more than just a ‘disappointment’.

Politically, the fact Armstrong is not in yellow makes it much easier for Alberto Contador to ride his own race on the road to Arcalis in the Pyrenees on Friday.

Yes, Contador must attack his own team-mate in order to win the Tour de France, but he will draw a lot less criticism for doing so if Armstrong is not in yellow.

It couldn’t have been closer in Montpellier. Just two-tenths of a second stood between Armstrong and a spell in yellow during this, his comeback Tour de France.

Before the stage, Cancellara led Armstrong in the overall standings by 40 seconds. Astana won the 39-kilometre team time trial in Montpellier, beating Saxo Bank by those 40 seconds. However, when riders are tied, the fractions of a second recorded in the individual time trials are taken into account, so Cancellara clung on courtesy of Saturday’s times.

It is interesting to note that had the field not split on Monday, Contador would have been in yellow in Montpellier. Before the Columbia-led move, to which Armstrong and team-mates loyal to him gratefully contributed, Contador was just 18 seconds down overall. Had the bunch stayed together, he’d have been in yellow by 22 seconds after the team time trial.

Laurent Fignon criticised the team time trial for being dangerous, and he may have had a point. The first two-thirds of the course were extremely technical. Leaving Montpellier the roads were littered with raised kerbs, bollards, speed humps, roundabouts and awkward turns. Out in the countryside the surfaces took a turn for the worse, there were some very narrow stretches and some deceptive bends. Then the climbing began, a steady grind upwards, making it very difficult for the teams to get into a rhythm. The fast final 11 kilometres, on wide roads, were not as hilly, but still with the occasional lump to weed out the weak.

Add to that a blustery hot wind and it was about as taxing as the discipline can be. It would have been a difficult individual time trial, but as a team test it was vicious.

The early starters were the ones who came to grief. Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, so assured during an equally technical time trial at the Giro d’Italia, fell on a left-hand bend that later claimed Alessandro Ballan.  At one stage four BBOX Bouygues Telecom riders overshot a difficult, downhill right-hander and were thrown into a ditch. Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck touched a wheel on a flat, straight bit of road and went down. Teams shed riders as soon as the climbing began. This was no ordinary team time trial.

Caisse d’Epargne set the early mark, which was soon broken by Katusha, who were perhaps the surprise package of the day, finishing sixth. They topped the leaderboard until Liquigas knocked them off.

But the stage was all about the big three. Columbia perhaps paid the price for Monday’s exertions. Garmin-Slipstream lost riders on the climb, and rode the second half with five riders. With the team’s time taken on the fifth rider to cross the line, that was the minimum requirement. There was a long stretch when Ryder Hesjedal was not contibuting, so the fact Christian Vande Velde, Bradley Wiggins, David Millar and David Zabriskie managed to power Garmin to the best time when they reached the line was remarkable.

It was a quirk of fate that just as Astana were setting the best time at the second checkpoint, Garmin were rolling over the finish line in first place. Those looking for signs of discord in the Astana paceline were disappointed.

Just as he did in his later Tours with US Postal Service and Discovery Channel, Johan Bruyneel’s team raised their game for the discipline. On the line it was close. There were only 18 seconds between the two teams but the most crucial thing was that Astana had beaten Saxo Bank by 40, rather than 41 seconds.

Jonathan Vaughters must have been gutted. His team have had 24 second places this season.

Astana, Tour de France 2009, stage 4 TTT

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Armstrong’s fans will have been disappointed their hero came so close to taking the yellow jersey, while those at the opposite end of the spectrum breathed a huge sigh of relief. There seems to be a growing sense that it’s only a matter of time before he takes the race lead, but Contador will have plenty to say about that.

There’s been a lot of talk about Cancellara riding strongly overall, but it’s difficult to see it happening. So, he won the Tour of Switzerland, but on a watered down course designed to give him a chance of winning his home tour. He may ride well at Arcalis, but he’ll surely lose the jersey.

That’s assuming there are no further twists in the next two days. The wind could play a part on Wednesday’s stage to Perpignan, and the finish in Barcelona is uphill, so there may be opportunities for Armstrong if he’s fixated on getting the yellow jersey.

Otherwise, we wait for Friday’s climb to Arcalis. And Contador knows he must get his retaliation in first.

As Lance Armstrong said after the stage, the team time trial in Montpellier ended the victory hopes of some big names.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Denis Menchov now has no chance of repeating his Giro d’Italia victory. And how on earth are Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans going to recover the time they trail the Astana duo?

Denis Menchov

Rabobank were 11th, 2-20 slower than Astana
Menchov is now 72nd overall, 3-59 behind Armstrong
and 3-40 behind Contador

Cadel Evans
Silence-Lotto were 13th, 2-35 slower than Astana
Evans is now 35th overall, 2-59 behind Armstrong
and 2-40 behind Contador

Carlos Sastre
Cérvelo were eighth, 1-37 slower than Astana
Sastre is now 29th, 2-44 behind Armstrong
and 2-25 behind Contador

Tour de France 2009 – the hub: Index to reports, photos, previews and more.


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Tour de France stage four TTT coverage

Stage three: Cavendish wins second stage as Armstrong distances Contador

Stage two: Cavendish takes first sprint

Stage one: Cancellara wins opening time trial


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Stage three photo gallery by Graham Watson

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Stage one photo gallery by Andy Jones

Stage one photo gallery by Graham Watson

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Tour de France 2009 – the hub
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