I got in a bit of an argument with a friend of mine the other day on Facebook. He believes that Lance Armstrong betrayed his teammate Alberto Contador on Stage 3 to Le Grande-Motte. This was the stage when Columbia HTC created a split in the peloton near the end of the stage by using basic racing tactics that took advantage of a strong cross wind.
Lance and Fabian Cancellara saw the move coming from Columbia and managed to stay with them. Armstrong ended up being the only General Classification threat in the break. Contador apparently missed the signs of the impending break and ended up finishing with the second group.
As a result, Lance picked up 41 seconds on all of the other GC men while Cancellara stayed in yellow for another day. Contador, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, and most other GC contenders lost the 41 seconds because they finished with the field.
The next day, during the Stage 4 Team Time Trial, we saw riders like Denis Menchov and Cadel Evans lose major time due to the bad performance of their teammates or basic bike handling mistakes that led to crashes.
Now after five stages Sastre is 2 minutes 44 seconds down, Evans is at 2:59, and Menchov is at 3:52. It's hard to believe that any of these great riders is going to get so far away from the peloton that they will be able to make up three or four minutes.
We can all draw our own conclusions about whether the riders who lost time in these cases should have known better or could have done something to avoid their losses. However, it's clear from the way this race has gone so far that this year's Tour de France may not be won in any one of the first few stages, but it can certainly be lost with a bad performance at a critical moment.
This sounds like a cliché, but it isn't always the case. If you look back to previous Tours in recent history, losing two or three minutes was not a problem at all. In 2001, François Simon had a lead of over 20 minutes after Stage 9, but he could not defend the lead in the Alps or the Pyrenées.
Gaps of 3 and 4 minutes are significant, in my opinion, when the people leading the race are credible threats to win the GC. In this year's Tour Armstrong, Contador, Andreas Klöden, and Levi Leipheimer are all within one minute of the lead. Perhaps a rider like Andy Schleck can make up his 1 minute 41 seconds. One of the top few riders is likely to win by not giving riders like Evans, Menchov, and Sastre the chance to make up their current time deficits.