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Roll On, Columbia!



[Obectivity alert: I've ordered a jersey.] 

I could rank the teams right now, but as notable performances go, the World's Number One team is the biggest story thus far. Yes, they're still third in a tight three-way race for the team classification with CSC (yawn) and the Gar-Men (yay!), and yes the GC teams will soon have their say, but no other team has exerted its influence the way Columbia has.

First and foremost are the array of jerseys: three of the four now. And the blink of an eye away from yellow numbers as well. Toss in a stage win, on the signature sprinters' stage, while you're at it.

Speaking of that stage, Columbia ruthlessly poached the win, letting the day's most motivated chasers (Gerol and Credit Ag) tow the otherwise indifferent peloton to within a shout of the break before unleashing a dominant last-10km performance. This was great tactics, which is what happens when a team deals from strength. Credit Ag had to reel in the breaks in order for Thor Hushovd to get max points and maybe take the Green Jersey... from Kim Kirchen. Columbia could thus afford to let the break win and protect Kirchen's green fleece, but once it was hauled back, they could flip to plan B, the stage win.

Such clear tactics is the hallmark of the new team, a dramatic break from the T-Mobile days where they would flood the field with talent but no apparent plan, or at least not a smart one. That team will be remembered for its great individuals and its ability to shepherd Erik Zabel into green in the early years... as well as for its complete inability to get out of its own way from about 2001 onward. Nobody fielded less underachieving squads, and that's before we contemplate the talent left rotting back home (Evans, Savoldelli, etc.)

Still, you can't discuss improved tactics without addressing a closely related subject: cohesion. It's always a little startling in sports when the whole turns out to be much more (or less) than the sum of its parts. Tactics are what makes a team successful, but cohesion is what makes tactical execution possible. For me, the signature moment for this team in the Tour was the sight of Kim Kirchen leading out Mark Cavendish for the win yesterday. Kirchen lost his green jersey (momentarily) that day to Hushovd, presumably because he didn't tend to his own cause exclusively: he came in 45th. I don't know what he said about the experience, but actions speak loudly, and he, Bernhard Eisel, Gerald Ciolek and George Hincapie all dedicated themselves to Cavendish (who, for his part, lavishes praise on his mates). All of these guys are sprinters and could make a case for their own interests on that stage, but once again it was teamwork that won the day. Eisel is a special case: rarely does a top sprinter openly embrace the set-up role like he has.

Of course, we might not be able to say this were it not for the results. Apart from sports' worst egos, everyone's a happy camper when the team is winning. But winning -- or the chance to do so -- wasn't enough to knit together T-Mobile's most recent Tour squads. Jan Ullrich was the shaky foundation on which the team was built. Alexander Vinokourov couldn't handle working for his softer teammate, and ultimately the squad wound up chasing him on the roads of France... the franchise's lowest (non-doping) moment. This was simply a matter of incompatible personalities. The younger reincarnation of T-Mobile, sprinkled with classy vets like Hincapie and Pinotti, have no such internal hurdles.

An odd sidebar: are they becoming America's Team? Their HQ and sponsor say "USA", but as compared to homegrown Garmin-Chipotle, Columbia still sorta seems like the orphan baby that was abandoned at our doorstep. We're taking them in, and it sure isn't hard to appreciate them for who they are. But their history in Germany is long and storied... and not that far in the past. We'll see.

Anyway, it's been a brilliant first week. Probably won't end as gloriously, since Kirchen will need more than cohesion to get him over the Alps, but Columbia have shown that they can take advantage of where their real talents lie. Over and over again.

Finally, how is this not the team theme song? Maybe Stapleton has mixed feelings about hydropower.