The Benefits of Giving It Away

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With more than two weeks remaining in the 2004 Tour de France, and knowing how difficult the final week will be, the US Postal Service was more than willing to let a five-man breakaway escape today and take the stage as well as the yellow jersey.

While it might seem crazy to give up the overall lead Lance and the team worked so hard to win yesterday, you have to realize that winning the Tour de France is all about energy management. The team put in a hard effort yesterday to win the team time trial, not because they really wanted the yellow jersey, but because they wanted to increase the time gaps between Lance and his rivals. Starting Stage 5 with the yellow jersey was an honor, but it also obligated the team to ride on the front and set the pace for the peloton.

The Tour de France is largely governed by honor and tradition, and the team holding the yellow jersey is expected to lead the field out of respect for the jersey and significance it holds. You don’t necessarily have to defend the jersey at all costs, but refusing to work at all would be a serious sign of disrespect to the jersey, the race, and the other riders.

It wasn’t in the best interest of Lance Armstrong’s overall chances to win the Tour de France to fiercely defend the yellow jersey today. Putting your team out front in the wind for 120 kilometers burns a lot of the team’s collective energy, and Lance needs his teammates to be as fresh as possible heading into the mountains next week. The majority of the teams in the Tour don’t have any riders who can challenge the main contenders for the overall victory, and they would gladly ride on the front all day to defend the yellow jersey for as long as they could. Holding the yellow jersey is great for a team’s sponsor, and in some cases, validates a weaker team’s invitation to be in the race at all.

The Brioches La Boulangère team doesn’t need to prove its worthiness to be in the Tour de France, but they did start the race without the rider they hoped would challenge Lance Armstrong for the yellow jersey, Joseba Beloki. The Spaniard who crashed so spectacularly in last year’s race and broke several bones moved to the Brioches La Boulangère team last winter, but left it abruptly a few months ago, after the team was selected for participation in the Tour de France. Without Beloki, they don’t have a contender for the overall victory, but young Thomas Voeckler gave the team something to celebrate by earning the yellow jersey today after a very long breakaway effort.

Brioches La Boulangère will certainly take up the work to defend the jersey and control the peloton. They are a French team, in a French race, with the current French National Champion in the yellow jersey. This is great news for the Postal Service because it means they can take a back seat for a few days and recuperate. Four USPS riders hit the ground today, Benjamin Noval crashed hard in Stage 3, and they’ve had a long week of work keeping Lance out of trouble. They’ve done a great job, and they haven’t had to dig deep into their energy reserves yet, despite the amount of work they’ve done. With the pressure off of them for a few days, the whole team should be really fresh and ready for the next big challenge: the Pyrenees.