For the second time in less than a week, Tour leader Lance Armstrong has suffered a major defeat - and his four-year iron grip on the yellow jersey at long last appears to be loosening.
Forced on the defensive by Iban Mayo in the climb of L'Alpe D'Huez last Sunday, the Texan was pushed into second place in yesterday's 47km time trial by none other than his old rival Jan Ullrich. In temperatures touching 40C, Armstrong trailed the winner of the 1997 Tour by the considerable margin of 95 seconds.
To say this is a major upset would be an under-exaggeration. Armstrong has lost long time trials in previous Tours - last year he finished 11 seconds down on the Colombian Santiago Botero - but never, since 1999, on this scale.
"It's not so bad," the Texan insisted rather glumly afterwards. "At least I finished second. But Jan is now the major favourite to win the Tour this year." This remark is no bluff of the type Armstrong has liked to use in the past. The American has always insisted Ullrich "is the only rider I fear in the Tour" and now the German's first Tour stage win since 1998 has propelled him into second place, just 34 seconds behind the yellow jersey.
Never has Armstrong, whose domination of the Tour has been so crushing in recent years it has bordered on the monotonous, seemed so vulnerable at this point in the race. Since 1999 his minimum lead after one long time trial and either the Pyrenees or Alps has been two-and-a-half minutes, last year, over Joseba Beloki.
The Basque rider crashed out of the race last Monday with a double fracture in his femur. But if his countryman Iban Mayo, Armstrong's most dangerous mountain rival, crumbled to twelfth place in the time trial, more than five minutes down on Ullrich, the German has now taken his place as the American's main challenger.
As comebacks go in sport, Ullrich's is remarkable. This time 12 months ago he was nursing an injured knee and he had turned in a positive test for amphetamines. To top it all, his driving licence had been taken away after wrapping the front bumper of his Mercedes around some parked bikes in Stuttgart at three o'clock in the morning, considerably the worse the wear for drink.
No 2002 Tour for the German, obviously, but after serving his nine-month ban he returned to racing this spring with the financially-challenged Coast team. The German squad was suspended for a second time because of non-payment of wages in May, and so it was that Ullrich rolled down the starting ramp of the Tour time trial yesterday in the blue-and-white striped colours of Bianchi, a near-legendary bike manufacturer which stepped in at the last minute to save his team from total collapse.
Their €2m (£1.45m) investment paid off in spades as the German tore along the rolling course north of Toulouse, pulverising the previous best times set at the intermediate checkpoints and obviously en route to a historic victory over Armstrong.
"I honestly hadn't prepared for this stage at all," Ullrich insisted. "My only objective was to go all out from the start and see how long I could keep a high rhythm." There were no errors, and no mishaps for the 29-year-old as he tore past small vineyards wilting in the intense heat on the more sinuous first 20 kilometres and then upped the pace yet further as the route then plunged through some thankfully shady woodland.
Armstrong, who started 12 minutes later, did not appear to be in trouble at first, maintaining his usual high cadence of pedal-turning - some 100 revolutions-a-minute. But after lagging just a few hundredths of a second behind Ullrich at 16 kilometres, 20 kilometres further on the gap had yawned open to 40 seconds, and by the finish in Cap'Decouverte was a positively chasm-sized one minute and 35 seconds.
"I ran out of water and had a big crisis late on," the Texan revealed. "It felt like I was riding backwards." After a equally promising start, Britain's David Millar also ran out of gas. Suffering from a throat infection, he still finished a respectable seventh, "unable to breathe properly, but I'm not going to stop."
Ullrich was cautious concerning his chances of beating Armstrong: "I had regarded this year as a comeback rather than a real chance of winning the Tour, and I'd prefer to just enjoy today rather than look too far ahead." Whether Armstrong is now on the way out is too early to say, that question will only be resolved by the race's four days in the Pyrenees.
The 31-year-old remains in the lead, but his post-stage statements to the press were unusually contradictory. "I won't be worried if I am still in this position with 34 seconds advantage on Ullrich in the final time trial [a week today]," he argued. However, earlier Armstrong had contended that he "would have to attack in the mountains."
If he appears confused and uncertain what to do with Ullrich, the German is not his only concern by any means. Mayo, whilst pushed down to 4mins 29secs behind overall, will almost certainly attempt to open up the race in the mountains, whilst Alexandre Vinokourov, who had said he would be content if he lost 90 seconds yesterday, finished the course a mere 30 seconds slower than Armstrong and remains third overall.
Far from resolving the Tour in the time trial as the Texan had hoped, therefore, his problems now appear to be even larger than before - and the Pyrenees start today.Reuse content