Armstrong looking for momentum in time trial

Posted: Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Lance Armstrong is looking forward to getting the first week of the Tour de France out of the way.

He was slower than planned in the opening prologue time trial, and barely escaped serious injury in a massive pileup at the end of Stage 1.

The U.S. Postal Service Team will try to gain momentum with a strong performance in Wednesday's team time trial, a brutal and beautiful test of strength.

THE CRASH: The Stage 1 wreck was the unfortunate consequence of 198 cyclists trying to squeeze through a right-hand bend at 42 mph. All it took was one slip of a tire, and dozens of cyclists ended up on the tarmac.

Armstrong and his USPS teammates fared reasonably well, but others were not so fortunate. Immediately following the stage, Lance told me he had a few scratches, but nothing he would even consider calling ''road rash.''

Every rider in the field was wearing a helmet during Stage 1, but that was the only protective gear they had when they hit the ground. The injury list from the crash included: one broken collarbone, one broken hip, one facial fracture, and lots of lost skin.

But as bad as the crash looked, all but two riders started the next day, including American Tyler Hamilton, who began the second stage with his collarbone cracked in two places.

Even though Armstrong and most of the peloton were delayed by the crash, no one lost any time in the standings.

There is a rule in stage racing that if a crash occurs in the final kilometer (.62 miles), everyone in the main field receives the same finishing time. The rule was written out of concern for fairness and rider safety.

Due in part to the crowd barriers that line the final kilometer, it is very difficult to get around fallen riders, and climbing over injured colleagues would be barbaric. Likewise, no one wants to see a stage race decided by the unfortunate luck of being caught in a crash, nor does anyone want riders ignoring potentially serious injuries to scramble for the finish line.

THE TEAM TIME TRIAL: For the men hoping to wear the yellow jersey in Paris, there are two main objectives in the first week of the Tour de France: avoid the crashes and have a strong performance in Wednesday's team time trial.

The team time trial (TTT) is one of the most beautiful cycling events to watch, and one of the hardest to participate in. Each team rides as a unit, and with identical bicycles and uniforms, the team formations resemble brightly painted locomotives.

Each rider receives the time recorded by the fifth team member across the finish line, meaning teamwork is essential and you're only as strong as your fifth rider.

Armstrong needs the combined power of his eight teammates in the TTT, and doing well in the event is very important for his overall chances of victory. You can't win the Tour de France in the TTT, but you can definitely lose it.

The top teams will finish within a minute of each other, but some of the weaker teams will lose several minutes and take their team leaders completely out of contention.

Team time trials are brutally hard for every rider on the team. Nine men sharing the work of pushing through the wind can go faster than any one man by himself, even Armstrong.

The riders take turns at the front of the team formation, punching a hole in the wind so their teammates can recover in the draft. The big guys are more powerful on flat roads, so when it is their turn to pull at the front of the team, they stay there longer than their smaller teammates.

On the U.S. Postal Service team, this difficult duty falls to George Hincapie, Vjatceslav Ekimov, Pavel Padrnos, and Armstrong. Later, when the roads tilt upward in the mountains, the smaller men will pay them back by doing the lion's share of the pacing work.

The small men suffer in TTTs, even in the draft, because they lack the muscle mass to generate the massive power necessary to ride nearly 34 mph for 43 miles.

It is important they don't lose contact with the team, though, because they would lose several minutes by the end of the stage and risk being eliminated from the Tour. Riders finishing more than 5 percent slower than the stage winner aren't allowed to start the following day.

The U.S. Postal Service will try to get to the final 10 kilometers of the TTT with all nine riders. All teams get tired and slow down near the end of the stage, and often the team that slows the least is the winner of the day.

By working as a cohesive unit for as long as possible, the U.S. Postal Service should finish in the top three teams in the TTT, and keep Armstrong in contention for his fifth Tour de France victory.

Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since 1990 and has guided him to four consecutive Tour de France titles. Elected to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in May, he is also the author of ''The Ultimate Ride'' and will be writing a column for The Associated Press during the Tour de France.

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