It was stealthy for the first few stages, but in yesterday's team time-trial Lance Armstrong's return to power in the Tour became a full-scale charge that only stopped a few hundredths of a second short of the American taking the leader's jersey for the 84th time in his career.
The Texan's Astana squad finished 40 seconds ahead of the race leader Fabian Cancellara's Saxo Bank team, more than enough to earn Armstrong his first visit to the winner's podium since 2005 to celebrate their collective victory. However, whilst tied on time with Armstrong, Cancellara remained in yellow thanks to taking just a fraction of a second less – a quarter of a pedal stroke? A tenth? – in Saturday's opening race against the clock.
Armstrong has never come so agonisingly close to leading the Tour, but he was anything but downcast about it. "I have plenty of yellow jerseys back home," he said.
For Armstrong, Astana's success does more than enable the Texan to move from third to within a whisker of leading the Tour. Inside Astana, while overwhelming Tour favourite Alberto Contador theoretically remains team leader, the balance of power has once again shifted noticeably in favour of Armstrong.
The 37-year-old American seemed more than content to be treated as if he were the squad's top rider after Astana's victory. While Contador disappeared quickly from sight, Armstrong took his time to shake hands, one by one, with all the local dignitaries on the podium. He was then the only Astana rider to hold a press conference.
Compared with Saturday's opening stage when he delivered platitudes about how he was "just glad to be here", Armstrong's overall ambitions appear to have risen radically in the past four days. He stopped short, though, of actually saying he wanted to win the Tour.
"Twelve months ago I expected it to be easier," he said, "but now I've got both feet on the ground and I realise it will be a hell of a lot harder than 2001, 2004 or 2005," – years when he swept the floor with the opposition.
It is ironic, of course, that Contador's work in the time trial – both he and Armstrong took huge turns at the head of the line of Astana riders – has helped fuelled the American's as-yet unspecified, but rising, ambitions.
But Armstrong explained that he had told Contador that it was in their common interest to work as hard as possible, and the Spaniard, apparently, acquiesced. "I said that we could finish the Tour today for some major contenders, and that's what we did," Armstrong explained.
However, while Contador has now seen off some key figures thanks to Astana's team effort – the Russian Denis Menchov is nearly four minutes behind and Australian Cadel Evans is three – he has been unable to avoid Armstrong's return to power, and even contributed to it. In the long-run, that choice may prove to be fatal.
Tour de France: Stage 4 results
Result and standings after the 39-km fourth stage team time-trial in Montpellier.
Result: 1 Astana 46min 29sec; 2 Garmin-Slipstream +18sec; 3 Saxo Bank +40sec; 4 Liquigas +58sec; 5 Columbia-HTC +59sec; 6 Katusha +1:23sec; 7 Caisse d'Epargne +1:29sec; 8 Cervelo +1:37sec; 9 AGR +1:48sec; 10 Euskaltel-Euskadi +2:09sec; 11 Rabobank +2:20sec; 12 Quick-Step +2:26sec; 13 Silence-Lotto +2:35sec; 14 Francaise des Jeux +2:46sec; 15 Milram +2:48sec; 16 Cofidis +2:58sec; 17 Lampre +3:24sec; 18 Agritubel +4:17sec; 19 Bbox-Bouygues +4:41sec; 20 Skil-Shimano +5:23sec.
1. F Cancellara (Swit) Saxo Bank 10hr 38min 7sec; 2. L Armstrong (US) Astana (same time); 3. A Contador (Sp) Astana +19sec; 4. A Klöden (Ger) Astana +23sec; 5. Levi Leipheimer (US) Astana +31sec; 6. B Wiggins (GB) Garmin +38sec; 7. H Zubeldia (Sp) Astana +51sec; 8. T Martin (Ger) Columbia-HTC +52sec; 9. D Zabriskie (US) Garmin +1:06sec; 10. D Millar (GB) Garmin +1:07sec.
1. M Cavendish (GB) Columbia-HTC 70pt
2. T Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo 54pt
3. S Dumoulin (Fr) Cofidis 36pt
1. Astana 30hr 20min 33sec
2. Saxo Bank +2:33sec
3. Columbia-HTC +2:45sec
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