NICE, France | At the Tour de France, it really isn't a cliche to say that every second counts. As a former winner, Cadel Evans knows that better than most.
The 2011 champion was one of the losers Tuesday in the team time trial. Even riding bikes that cost as much as a good second-hand family car, with sharp edges to slice through the air and fancy electric gears, Evans and his teammates still couldn't keep up with two of his main rivals — Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.
Evans surrendered 23 seconds to Froome and 17 to Contador. So early in the Tour — the team race against the clock was only the fourth of 21 stages — such small losses are by no means fatal to Evans' hopes of finishing on the podium in Paris on July 21. Riders who have bad days in the Pyrenees, in the second week, or on Mont Ventoux and in the Alps, in the third week, could lose far more than that on just one steep climb.
Still, Evans was the first to acknowledge that handing this early edge to the big favorites for the overall victory was far from ideal. Somewhere, somehow, Evans now has to make up that lost time if he can. Depending on how the race unfolds, the deficit could force the Australian to try to attack Froome and Contador in the mountains. That will be risky because both are better climbers than Evans. Contador, 30, and Froome, 28, are also a good bit younger than the 36-year-old Australian.
"You look to gain every second at this point in the Tour and losing a lot of seconds certainly isn't what I hoped for today and it isn't what I expected," he said. "We've been put on the back foot and we'll have to see what opportunities come our way.
"The simple analysis is we weren't fast enough."
That wasn't true of Orica-GreenEdge. The team of six Australians, a Canadian, a Swiss rider and a South African made itself at home on the Promenade des Anglais — "the promenade of the English" — with the quickest ever team time trial on the 15.5-mile route that went out and back along the famous beachside avenue in the Mediterranean city of Nice.
Racing past the palm trees Orica beat Omega Pharma-Quick Step by less than 1 second and Froome's Team Sky by 3 seconds. Orica's average speed of 35.9 mph was the fastest ever for a team time trial at the 110-year-old Tour.
According to the race organizers' history guide, the previous fastest team time trial was by Discovery Channel, with Lance Armstrong. It averaged 35.6 mph on a course nearly three times as long in 2005. This 100th Tour is the first since Armstrong was last year stripped of his wins from 1999-2005 for serial doping. Setting aside that tainted result, Garmin-Cervelo rode an average speed of 34.5 mph on a 14.3-mile course in 2011.
The team event is as much about rhythm and the nine riders working smoothly together as it is about raw speed. In their aerodynamic tear-drop shaped helmets that wouldn't look out of place in Star Trek, the teams set off one after another at four-minute intervals. The riders take turns at the front, pedaling as hard as they can, while their teammates follow in a line, catching their breath in the slipstream before they go back to the front again. Mastering the choreography is an art. The strongest riders must make sure not to leave teammates behind.
"It was just smooth. When you're going really high speed, it's all about keeping it smooth. You know, no champion efforts, no big individual efforts, it is about riding to the strength of the team," Orica rider Stuart O'Grady said.
Another Orica rider, Simon Gerrans, took over the race lead and the yellow jersey that goes with it. Orica has so far been the standout team at this Tour — mostly for good reasons but also for bad. Its bus got stuck at the finish line of Stage 1, causing momentary mayhem and making the team the butt of jokes. But it wiped the smile off rivals' faces with Gerrans winning Stage 3 and now in yellow thanks to the time trial victory that gave him and two teammates the top three spots in the overall standings. Gerrans took up cycling to help rehabilitate knee injuries he got racing motorbikes. He was introduced to the sport and coached by Phil Anderson, the first Australian to wear the yellow jersey, back in 1981.
One of Orica's directors is Matt White — a former teammate of Armstrong. White last year admitted to involvement in doping when he rode with Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. White was banned for six months. The punishment was reduced from two years because White is helping the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigate cycling. White wouldn't get into detail on this Tuesday.
"I think everything's been said," he said. "So obviously with ongoing investigations there's nothing more to say about that."
After four stages, the Tour has now had three different proud bearers of the yellow jersey. Marcel Kittel and Jan Bakelants wore it before Gerrans. In 2012, the Tour had just two leaders — Fabian Cancellara and then eventual winner Bradley Wiggins, who took the jersey on Stage 7 and never gave it back.
Froome, Wiggins' lieutenant last year on Team Sky but now its leader, was buoyant after the time trial. He is starting to sound more comfortable with the mantle of race favorite.
"I'm feeling like I'm really coming into some good form now ahead of the mountains," the Briton said.
His aim, of course, is to get the yellow jersey eventually, but not quite yet. The Tour swings westward through Provence to Marseille and then Montpellier on Wednesday and Thursday. Those predominantly flat stages are for sprinters or riders who will be allowed to breakaway because they aren't a threat for overall victory. Froome, Contador, Evans and other main contenders will probably be happy to sit safely in the pack before they do battle in the more decisive mountain climbs and two individual time trials later in the race.
"It gives us a few more days to be in the peloton and wait until the mountains come, where I feel the team will really excel," Froome said.