Armstrong starts strong

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 3, 2004

The Associated Press

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.

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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 Tour yet.

''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,'' Cancellara said.

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 cobblestones.''

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 last year.

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.