LIEGE, Belgium -- Doubters take note: Lance Armstrong is not
playing to lose.
Making an emphatic if not victorious start to his record-chasing
Tour de France, Armstrong dealt key rivals a psychological blow by
leaving them in his wake in the debut time trial on Saturday.
The Texan, seeking to become the first six-time Tour winner,
cast off the stress and murmurs that he is past his prime by
speeding to second place in the 3.8-mile prologue race against the
clock in Liege, Belgium.
Only an exceptional ride by Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider
nearly 10 years Armstrong's junior, deprived the 32-year-old
five-time champion of a place atop the podium and the overall
leader's yellow jersey he covets.
"I'm satisfied by the way I felt, but I'm disappointed to lose
by only a couple of seconds. That's the way it goes," Armstrong
told reporters after a congratulatory kiss from rocker girlfriend
Sheryl Crow. "The most important thing, is how does it feel? I was
very comfortable, I felt strong, and that feels good."
Armstrong was 15 seconds ahead of his main rival Jan Ullrich and
left contenders Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo far behind, too. His
performance was a strong start to what he fears will be his hardest
"It's just a start. They don't call it the prologue for
nothing. It sets the tone of the race for the first week," he
said. "There is a lot of dangerous racing to go. Just in three
days, we have some sections of cobblestones, that if it rains and
is windy, will be very dangerous."
Armstrong, who as defending champion started last of the 188
riders, pedaled furiously to finish just behind 23-year-old
Cancellara, who declared himself "the happiest man in the world."
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour victor, was 16th. He still has three
weeks to make up time, but still could rue the lost seconds if the
race is tight. Last year, the German finished just 61 seconds
behind Armstrong in Paris, runner-up for a fifth time.
Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate, was 18th on Saturday, 16
seconds behind the Texan. Mayo gave up 19 seconds to the five-time
champion, placing 26th.
Only Britain's Chris Boardman has ridden faster than Cancellara
in the prologue event.
Boardman clocked an average speed of 34.194 mph in Lille,
France, in 1994 and 33.599 mph in Dublin, Ireland, in 1998.
Cancellara, who competes for Italy's Fassa Bortolo team, rode at
33.207 mph through the crowd-lined streets of Liege. His win earned
him the honor of wearing the leader's yellow jersey. Armstrong will
be looking to wear that shirt himself when the Tour ends in Paris
on July 25.
"We've seen already that Armstrong is in great form,"
After all the build-up, the speculation about whether Armstrong
can win six times, the press interviews, medical checks and waiting
for the start, riders were simply relieved to be under way.
"You go crazy sitting around in the hotel," said Armstrong
teammate George Hincapie, who was 10th. "It's always a little
stressful before the Tour. But it's important not to let that
affect you. It's important to stay calm, relaxed, and to talk about
fun things at the dinner table and keep everybody happy."
On Sunday, the riders embark on the first full stage, a
125.5-mile trek from Liege to Charleroi, also in Belgium. The route
starts with a series of small hills but levels out toward the end -
perfect for speedy sprinters who tend to dominate the relatively
flat first week or so of the race.
Such muscular, heavier riders tend to labor in the mountains
that come later in the race and are unlikely to pose a threat to
Armstrong or others vying for the crown.
For the favorites, a key aim of the first week is to stay safe,
avoiding crashes that are a constant hazard.
A dramatic pileup at the finish of Day 2 last year, when the
field was speeding bunched together for the line, left Armstrong
rival Hamilton with a double-fractured collarbone for the rest of
the three-week race. He still finished fourth overall, however.
Tuesday's 130-mile stage from Waterloo to Wasquehal in France
will take riders down cobblestone paths, tricky at the best of
times and treacherous when wet. Not crashing will be the No. 1 goal
for top contenders, who will likely work to stay toward the front,
out of trouble.
"It's going to be a stressful week for sure," said Hincapie,
competing in his ninth Tour. "It's important that you stay up
front and be careful with the winds and be careful with the
Armstrong will look to further distance his challengers in the
team time trial Wednesday, an exhausting and technical race against
the clock that his U.S. Postal Service squad won for the first time
New rules introduced this year limit the amount of time the
winning team can gain over the squads behind them. Nevertheless,
victory there could build Armstrong's cushion before the race heads
to the climbs of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees in week two.
Then comes week three, with the Alps and two time trials,
including one up a hellish, 21 hairpin-bend climb to the l'Alpe
d'Huez ski station. Those last stages could decide who wins when
the race rolls into Paris' crowd-lined Champs-Elysees.