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TOUR DE FRANCE Champ puts his stamp on trial



Published: Sat, July 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Lance Armstrong was second, but crushed his main rivals in the first stage.

NOIRMOUTIER-EN-L'ILE, France (AP) -- No easing up for Lance Armstrong in his last Tour de France.

Armstrong took a huge step toward winning his seventh consecutive Tour on the very first day of the three-week race. He crushed his main rivals in an opening time trial Saturday, opening up early time gaps that may be big enough to carry him through to victory at the finish in Paris on July 24.

"I was hungry today," said Armstrong, who is 33 and has said he will retire after this year's Tour. "I didn't come to ride a retirement race. I came to win."

A bad crash, an uncharacteristic drop in his devastating form and the sheer unpredictability of a race that covers 2,242 miles, the Alps and the Pyrenees still could conspire against Armstrong, whose six titles are already the Tour record.

But this much is clear: Armstrong's challengers will need the race of their lives to catch him and -- if previous years are any guide -- that still may not be enough.

Zabriskie wins stage

The only blot on an otherwise perfect Saturday for Armstrong? He was beaten by a fellow American and former teammate, David Zabriskie, by 2 seconds over the 11.8-mile course past oyster vendors and marshes from Fromentine to the island of Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile on western France's Atlantic coast.

But Zabriskie, for all his promise, is not considered a contender for the overall title at the still tender age for a cyclist of 26.

Armstrong, racing a special aerodynamic bike, helmet and suit, set out last of the 189 riders and had a minor mishap at the outset when one of his feet popped out of a pedal. But he quickly clipped it back and then pedaled relentlessly.

Ullrich over 1-minute back

He dealt a severe psychological and racing blow to his main rival, Jan Ullrich, by overtaking him along the way -- even though the German had set out 1 minute earlier.

"The feeling of being passed by Lance is not good," Ullrich said later. He tried to put a brave face on the defeat, saying: "The Tour is still three weeks long. I'll battle."

The closest of Armstrong's main rivals was Alexandre Vinokourov, Ullrich's teammate from Kazakhstan. He placed third but was still 51 seconds slower than the Texan.

Ullrich placed 12th, a whopping 1 minute and 6 seconds slower than Armstrong. That already is larger than Armstrong's winning margin over Ullrich in 2003, when he won by 61 seconds -- by far the narrowest of his victories.

Training crash affect

Armstrong and Ullrich's team both said the German, who has finished runner-up four times since his only win in 1997, may have been affected by a training crash on Friday. Ullrich cut his neck after slamming into the back of a car.

"That takes a lot out of you and I can't say I won the Tour de France just because of that," Armstrong said. "I saw Jan in front of me at the first time check and I thought: 'It's going well today.' I had him in my sights. Then I did my maximum," he said. "You can't lie. That's a good feeling in the sense that you know you're having a good day."

Armstrong's team coach, Johan Bruyneel, was jubilant, calling the ride "incredible." Armstrong's rock star girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow, snapped photos for the scrapbook.

Zabriskie's ride earned him the overall leader's yellow jersey and was the fastest in a time trial in the Tour's 102-year history -- a remarkable feat for his first-ever day in the race.

"This feels really great," said Zabriskie, who considered quitting cycling after a bad crash last year. "I never thought this would happen. Never, ever, ever."




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