Cycling: Grey day is no barrier to Armstrong's yellow jersey

Lance Armstrong delivered a third blow in five days to his rivals' Tour aspirations when his US Postal squad romped home for a second consecutive victory in two years in the team time trial, netting the yellow jersey to boot.

As the Tour squelches its way across the plains of a rainsoaked northern France, the news is anything but good for Armstrong's challengers, given that yesterday only some arcane, not to say perverse, rule-changing by the organisers prevented the American from opening up an advantage of near race-winning proportions.

In real time US Postal's victory was one minute and seven seconds over second-placed Phonak, but that was slashed to 20 seconds thanks to new regulations whereby squads' losses in this stage are limited to previously established margins. But none of these bizarre behind-the-scenes changes could prevent Armstrong's team from putting on a masterly show of collective strength as the rain drummed down on the 40-mile course between Cambrai and Arras.

Just one of Armstrong's riders, the inexperienced Spaniard Benjamin Noval, could not handle the pace and disappeared from Postal's nine-man team in the first third of the flat, exposed roads. After taking 12.5 milesto splutter into life in the wet conditions, Postal then extended an advantage of 39 seconds over arch rivals T-Mobile two-thirds of the way through the course. Come the finish, the American team had nearly doubled that advantage over the German squad.

The T-Mobile team leader, Jan Ullrich, would have found himself a further 1 minutes and 19 seconds adrift, but for the new regulations limiting his losses to just 40 seconds thanks to his team's fourth place.

"There's no point in complaining about the rules, that's just the way it is. But gaining 20 seconds on Tyler and 40 seconds on Jan is important, and at the same time I can come away from today safe in the knowledge I have the strongest team here," Armstrong said.

He has no plans to try and hang on to the yellow jersey come what may prior to the crucial second half of the race. "I don't want the team to burn themselves out before the Pyrenees." he explained.

With his losses just a third of what he would have suffered had the rule book remained in its 2003 format, Tyler Hamilton was left mopping his brow at the finish, after a nightmare stage saw him complete the course with the minimum number of riders permitted.

Four of his team-mates punctured and another two crashed forcing him to abandon almost half of his team to its fate. The ensuing chaos led to a bizarre mid-stage episode where Hamilton virtually free-wheeled for a couple of hundred metres while half of his squad disappeared around a couple of corners before realising they were lacking a leader and eased up.

Hamilton was not the only one to suffer on a course rendered lethally dangerous by the heavy rain, with long stretches of the edges of the road underwater and cobbled sections in the final kilometre becoming a death trap.

The Danish squad CSC had no less than three riders fall off, including their leader, Iban Basso. American outsider Levi Leipheimer also came a cropper, and double Tour of Italy winner Gilberto Simoni skidded into the barriers within sight of the finishing gantries.

Small wonder that Armstrong left nothing to chance. He personally rode over the course twice, once three months ago, and then returned to reconnoitre it twice yesterday morning by car. Nor can his rivals draw comfort from the idea that yesterday's time trial was a team performance, given that Armstrong upped the pace personally to nearly 60kph towards the finish.

Following his second place in the prologue, it was yet another sign that the Texan is already converting the Tour into a one-man race well before he reaches his favoured terrain of the Pyrenees in nine days' time.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

Fourth stage: Team time-trial (64.5km, Cambrai to Arras) Leading results: 1 US Postal 1hr 12min 03.270sec; 2 Phonak +1min 07.390sec; 3 Illes Balears +1:15.050; 4 T-Mobile +1:19.160; 5 Team CSC +1:46.230; 6 Rabobank +1:53.500; 7 Liberty Seguros +2:25.670; 8 Euskaltel +2:35.650; 9 Saeco +2:52.430; 10 Alessio-Bianci +2:57.120; 11 Quickstep-Davitamon +3:29.270; 12 Crédit Agricole +3:32.500; 13 AG2R +4:05.330; 14 Brioches La Boulangère +4:17.650; 15 Domina Vacanze +4:22.100; 16 Gerolsteiner +4:36.590; 17 Lotto +5:19.480; 18 Cofidis +5:34.020; 19 RAGT Semences +5:37.300; 20 FDJeux.com +7:33.710. Leading overall riders' standings (yellow jersey): 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 14hr 54min 53sec; 2 G Hincapie (US) US Postal +10sec; 3 F Landis (US) US Postal +16; 4 J Azevedo (Por) US Postal +22; 5 J L Rubiera (Sp) US Postal +24; 6 J E Gutierrez (Sp) Phonak +27; 7 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal +30; 8 T Hamilton (US) Phonak +36; 9 S Gonzalez (Sp) Phonak +37; 10 B Grabsch (Ger) Phonak +41; 11 J Voigt (Ger) Team CSC +43; 12 O Sevilla (Sp) Phonak +44; 13 M Beltran (Sp) US Postal +47; 14 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile same time; 15 M Pradera Rodriguez (Sp) Illes Balears +55; 16 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile s/t. King of the mountains standings (polkadot jersey): 1 P Bettini (It) Quick Step-Davitamon 19pts; 2 J Tombak (Est) Confidis 14; 3 Voigt 9; 4 B de Groot (Neth) Rabobank 7; 5 J Pineau (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère 3. Leading overall points standings (green jersey): 1 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 93pts; 2 J-P Nazon (Fr) AG2R 85; 3 J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2R 74; 4 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner 74; 5 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 70. Leading team standings: 1 US Postal 42hr 20:59sec; 2 Phonak +1min 13sec; 3 T-Mobile +1:44; 4 Team CSC +1:52; 5 Illes Balears +1:54.

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