- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

MONTPELLIER, France | Calling his team “simply awesome,” Lance Armstrong was nearly decked out in yellow again.

The seven-time champion surged from third place to second at the Tour de France on Tuesday after his Astana squad won a team time trial in a dramatic finish.

Armstrong erased all but a sliver of his 40-second deficit to leader Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland in the fourth stage. The only thing separating him from the yellow jersey now is a fraction of a second.

“Boo-YA!!!” Armstrong wrote on Twitter. “Well, what can I say? The team was simply awesome today. Consistent, fluid, mistake-free. We love this event… and are stoked to win.”

The performance was reminiscent of Armstrong’s dominance in the team time trial for the last three years of his string of victories from 1999 to 2005. This is his comeback year at the Tour after 3 1/2 years of retirement.

The 37-year-old Texan plotted strategy with star teammate Alberto Contador before the stage to weed out potential rivals.

Astana was timed in 46 minutes, 29 seconds for the 24.2-mile ride in and around Montpellier. That was 18 seconds better than Garmin, with Saxo Bank third, 40 seconds back.

Armstrong entered the day 40 seconds behind Cancellara of Saxo Bank, meaning ownership of the yellow jersey came down to split seconds.

At the last intermediate time check (19 miles), Astana was 41 seconds faster than Saxo, putting Armstrong in the lead at that point and setting up the tense finale.

Armstrong and Cancellara share an overall time of 10 hours, 38 minutes, 7 seconds, although the Swiss rider was deemed a fraction ahead. Organizers examined Saturday’s opening time trial in Monaco that was won by Cancellara. Those results were calculated to the thousandth of a second.

“That’s Swiss timing,” Cancellara said, laughing. “Time is on my side.”

After first expressing “a bit of disappointment” on French TV about not capturing the yellow shirt he has worn many times, Armstrong put his ride in perspective.

“That’s the way it is. We did our best,” he said. “At one point, we thought we had it, but if I look back on our performance… we were as sound as we could be. I have no regrets. I don’t look at that and lose sleep or get disappointed. This is a long race, maybe there’s one [yellow jersey] in my future.”

The potential rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, the Spaniard who won the 2007 Tour, has become a major subtext to the race.

They shelved any such rivalry Tuesday. Armstrong said he appealed to Contador before the race to work together to distance other contenders.

“My point was to Alberto, ‘Look, let’s ride perfect, and make this race almost impossible to win for others,”’ he said. “And I think we can say that we accomplished that.”

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