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Armstrong starts strong in opening stage of Tour de France

| Sunday, July 3, 2005

NOIRMOUTIER-EN-L'ILE, France -- Lance Armstrong had an impressive start to his final Tour de France, finishing second Saturday in the opening stage.

Armstrong, bidding for his seventh straight Tour victory before he retires, was 2 seconds behind fellow American David Zabriskie on the 11.8-mile course in Western France. The 26-year-old Zabriskie posted the fastest time trial in Tour history, clocking 20 minutes, 51 seconds, to take the yellow jersey as overall leader.

Though Armstrong didn't win, he opened up important time gaps over his major rivals -- including 1997 winner Jan Ullrich.

The 33-year-old Armstrong overtook Ullrich even though the German started one minute ahead of him.

"It's incredible what he has done today," Armstrong's team coach Johan Bruyneel said.

Bruyneel wasn't the only one in such a jubilant mood. Armstrong's rock star girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, snapped photos to capture the moment.

"I started slowly but I found my rhythm," said Armstrong, who had a slight mishap at the start when one of his feet popped out of the pedals. "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."

Ullrich placed 12th, 1:06 slower than Armstrong, and may have been affected by a crash in training Friday, when he slammed into the back of one of his team's cars and cut his neck. Alexandre Vinokourov, Ullrich's teammate and another top contender to unseat Armstrong, placed third. But he was 51 seconds slower than the Texan.

"The feeling of being passed by Lance is not good," Ullrich said. "The Tour is still three weeks long. I'll battle."

Zabriskie surprised them all with his remarkable performance on the first day of his first Tour.

He rode at an average of 33.98 miles an hour, besting the time-trial record set by Greg Lemond in 1989. Lemond raced at an average speed of 33.89 mph over a time trial course that was 3.4 miles longer, en route to his second of three Tour crowns.

"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."

Zabriskie still has screws in one of his knees from a crash in 2003 when he was hit by a sport utility vehicle in his hometown of Salt Lake City, breaking his leg and wrist.

He switched from Armstrong's camp to Team CSC this year, and won a time trial at the Giro d'Italia in May.

"We just witnessed the birth of a real champion for the time trial event," said his teammate and fellow American Bobby Julich, who placed 11th. "He just creamed everybody."

Italy's Ivan Basso, who placed third in the Tour last year and was the only rider to beat Armstrong in the Pyrenees, was 1:24 slower than Armstrong, placing 20th. Such a disadvantage will be difficult to make up.

Ullrich also might have a hard time catching Armstrong, especially if his accident was to blame for his performance.

"Maybe, it's the crash," said Luuc Eisenga, Ullrich's team spokesman. "He's a little demoralized. He doesn't really know what happened."

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