The men behind, and in front of, cycling's best rider
Nothing explains better why American cyclist Lance Armstrong is favored to wear the leader's yellow jersey in the Tour de France when it ends later this month than the fact that he was not wearing it Thursday.
That honor belonged to his US Postal teammate, Victor Hugo Peña, after a stunning display of cooperative cycling in a team time trial Wednesday propelled US Postal riders into the top eight places on the fifth day of the three-week race.
Teamwork, at which US Postal excels, will be the bedrock of Mr. Armstrong's record-equaling fifth consecutive Tour de France victory, if indeed he manages that feat, say cycling experts who watch more than just the stars who steal the glory of success.
"What's unique about cycling is that you are working together, like a team in football or any other sport, but only one rider actually wins," says Steve Bauer, a former Tour de France competitor. "One guy will step onto the podium in Paris, but the whole team deserves the accolades."
Still, riders in the nine-man teams competing in the Tour know their jobs and keep their priorities straight: to help in any way they can to push their strongest team- mate as high up the standings as they can.
When a French TV interviewer suggested Wednesday evening to George Hincapie, a US Postal rider, that he and his colleagues would now try to keep Mr. Peña at the head of the 196 strong pack, Mr. Hincapie was blunt. "The plan stays the same," he said. "We work for Lance."
Nor was Peña, the first Colombian rider ever to wear the legendary Tour de France yellow jersey, under any illusions about his ambitions. "I'm the consequence of what the team did right," he said. "For the moment I have the yellow jersey, but I will be passing it on."
What the US Postal team did right on Wednesday was to share the load evenly among its members, all of whom are powerful riders in good form. And in cycling, the load is pole position.