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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003
Spectacular, precise and powerful - the team time trial
By Gerard Knapp
JULY 9, 2003: Stage 4 of the 2003 Tour de France features a real stage for the purists - the team time trial. This event has been in and out of the Tour in the past, but it would seem it's back and here to stay.
The team time trial sees all nine riders from each team (or the riders remaining if others have abandoned due to sickness or a crash) ride in close formation: the objective is to achieve the fastest overall time on the stage. This is one event where drafting is absolutely paramount. Indeed, it is the only event on the road which can match the precision of a team pursuit, one of the staples of track racing.
On the road, the riders follow each other almost as closely as pursuiters and take 'turns' on the front, normally to pre-determined lengths of time or distance. As the race goes on, each rider can assess his performance and if he feels he can't put in for as long on the front to maintain tempo, the director sportif will instruct him to do shorter turns.
Normally, a TTT is longer than a normal individual time trial because of the drafting factor, where the following riders put in up to 25 percent less effort than the leader on the road.
Apart from its precision, the TTT appeals to purists because the output is quite often greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, a good, well-drilled team may not have any riders who would feature in the top 10 of an individual time trial, but if they work together they can still record the fastest time. In the 2001 Tour, the team of Credit Agricole - with house sprinter Stuart O'Grady in the yellow jersey - put in a stomping time to take out the stage.
They went in as outsiders and most expected O'Grady would surrender his jersey, but the maillot jaune gave him wings on that day. It was a great win for the French team, even if it was driven by an Australian, a German (Jens Voigt), two Americans (Jonathan Vaughters and Bobby Julich) and the Norwegian motor Thor Hushovd.
Because a team's time is recorded when the fifth rider in the team crosses the line, some teams will ask riders to put in major efforts in the second half of the race and really pick up the tempo, before dropping off the back, exhausted by their effort. However, they will need to finish quickly if they have any interest in maintaining a decent position on GC because they will record an individual time - not the team's time.
Being dropped in a TTT due to exhaustion or a puncture can be devasatating to a rider's overall position on GC. Pity the poor domestique who punctures in the first 20km - the director sportif will question whether it's worth the 20-30 seconds it may take to get a bike or wheel change, versus powering on without that rider. If the DS takes the latter option (and they usually do), he will communicate via radio to the team leader to keep going and then the dropped rider will pull out for a change. If it's the team leader, they will wait and normally there is a hierarchy of riders who are on the 'wait' or 'leave' list. For the rider waiting for a new bike or wheel, he has no chance of catching his eight team-mates hammering down the road in tight formation.
Because of the potential for enormous time gaps, the race organisers are not that brutal. Being seriously dropped in a TTT is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a hard session. Basically, a solo dropped rider needs to finish within a time of the fastest team's time plus 25 percent, which is a reasonably generous margin.
For all riders, the magic figure is seven minutes. Therefore, the maximum time a team of at least five riders will lose is seven minutes even if they really straggle home. However, normally a complete team will finish inside this limit. For dropped riders who finish inside the limit, the maximum damage on GC is still seven minutes. However, if they still can't get home within the limit of fastest time plus 25 percent, then they're eliminated.
Some teams - usually in a show of strength - will come home with all nine riders intact. In that case, the time the fifth rider crosses the line is the time for the team. Each rider in the first five gets the same time for the stage. If the team is together then the other riders also receive the group time. However, if riders have dropped off the back due to exhaustion, punctures and so on, then they receive the time each of them cross the line.
In the TTT, the teams start five minutes apart with the leading team on GC last to go, that means in stage 4 you will see Alessio head out first and US Postal Service - Berry Floor last to roll.
In the first week of the Tour the time gaps on general classification are small, but the time gaps which can be created by a solid performance in a TTT can really cause serious damage. For example, in last year's TTT of the Tour, the Euskaltel-Euskadi team lost a whopping 4.22 to the ONCE squad - that effectively ended the podium hopes of their climber Iban Mayo.
What this means is that a TTT almost always results in a change of yellow jersey (point and mountains classifications are unaffected).
Today, the TTT is a 69km hit-out from Joinville - Saint-Dizier. Looking at the profile, the course is really suited to the big-gear men. There is a small incline for the first 6km, then it gradually descends into Saint-Dizier. We're not talking a big climb: the teams set out at 176 metres altitude, climb to some 305 metres, then finish at 67 metres. With that kind of parcours, the 54-55 tooth chainrings will certainly be fitted and we can expect an average time in excess of 50kmh - not bad for one hour and twenty minutes of stomping across France.
One of the most impressive TTT squads is ONCE's - the 'killer bees' as they are also known. Clad in yellow (only for the TTT - they have to wear pink on normal TdF stages), the Spanish team took out last year's TTT by 16 seconds over US Postal Service. This effort gave the yellow jersey to Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano who then held it for another week.
For today's stage, we can expect to see ONCE and USPS to come in as favourites, but expect to see Jan Ullrich inspire Bianchi to ride strongly. The riders of the FDjeux.com team would have been expected to 'punch above their weight' - as it's a united and successful team - with one of the best TT engines in the peloton in Brad McGee. However, the injury to strongman Jimmy Caspar will certainly prevent them reaching their potential.