A fan cheers as Lance Armstrong races through downtown during the time trial stage of the Dodge Tour De Georgia Thursday, April 21, 2005 in Rome, Ga.
AP PHOTO/ROME NEWS-TRIBUNE/WILLIAM T. MARTIN
ROME, Ga. Lance Armstrong has plenty of work to do if he wants to win a seventh straight Tour de France.
Armstrong finished a disappointing ninth in Thursday's time trial at the Tour de Georgia, nearly two minutes behind the winner in a go-all-out style of cycling he usually dominates.
Another American, Floyd Landis, won the third stage in 39 minutes, 58.09 seconds. The other spots on the podium also were claimed by U.S. riders David Zabriskie in second and Christopher Baldwin third.
Shockingly, Armstrong was not among them. Racing in a light rain, he failed to make up ground on the climb up Mount Alto and had no chance of closing the gap by the time he pedaled onto the slick streets of downtown Rome.
''Clearly, I'm disappointed,'' said Armstrong, who could only manage a time of 41:44.87. ''I didn't feel great, but I thought I'd do a better ride than that. I'm disappointed and (it) clearly shows I have some work to do.''
Armstrong plans to retire this summer after going for a seventh straight victory in the Tour de France. Already, he's the only cyclist to win the world's most famous race six times.
The Tour de Georgia is a tuneup along the way, a six-day chance for Armstrong to gauge his conditioning against the best field that will be assembled on Americans roads .
He won this race a year ago, taking control in the time trial held over the same 18.6-mile course in northwest Georgia. Armstrong's winning time was 39:51.78 far better than he managed Thursday as leader of the Discovery Channel team.
''I'm probably behind on my fitness,'' Armstrong said. ''Last year I definitely got a jump on fitness, and this year I was way behind. I thought I caught up, but like I said, now I know I haven't. Now it's time to re-evaluate the season.''
With only 2 1/2 months to go before the Tour de France, Armstrong knows he must step up his training if he wants to sip one more glass of champagne on the Champs-Elyses.
''We just have to improve from here,'' he said. ''It means gaining fitness and losing weight, focusing on every little aspect of the sport the diet, the bike, the training, the team. I think they are even a little bit behind, so we've got work to do.''
Landis, who was Armstrong's right-hand man in several Tours with the old U.S. Postal Service team, is now the lead cyclist for Swiss-based Phonak. It felt a little strange to finish ahead of the former boss.
''He's not in the shape he was last year,'' Landis said. ''I don't think he has huge aspirations here. He won't be shattered if he doesn't win this race. I think there's other guys to watch.''
Other guys to watch besides Armstrong? Well, let's wait and see how he does over the next two days, when the race moves to the grueling mountain stages in north Georgia.
That's another Armstrong specialty, the part of the race where he usually leaves everyone huffing and puffing in his wake. He's got plenty of time make up, beginning with Friday's 134-mile stage from Dalton to Dahlonega.
Landis has the yellow jersey and a lead of 1:42 over Armstrong, who dropped to ninth overall.
After waking to a warm, sunny morning, the leaders had to ride in drastically different conditions. Clouds moved in, the wind picked up, temperatures fell and light but steady showers dampened the course.
Armstrong had reason to play it safe, not wanting to risk a nasty fall that could ruin his Tour de France hopes.
''He was probably ultraconservative in the corners. I'm sure he lost some time there,'' Baldwin said. ''Still, you don't expect to see him that far back, even being conservative. He's Lance Armstrong. This was probably just a training day for him.''
Zabriskie, another ex-Armstrong lieutenant who now rides for Danish-based Team CSC, is 19 seconds behind Landis in the overall rankings. Baldwin is third, 22 seconds off the pace for the Navigators Insurance team.
Olympic medalist and CSC leader Bobby Julich is lurking 28 seconds behind in fourth, giving Americans the top four spots on the leaderboard. But the most famous American of all was not among them.
''If we still have ambitions to try and win, we have to be aggressive,'' Armstrong said. ''We'll just play it by ear. Now the race is on the shoulders of Phonak and CSC. We'll just be secondary players and see if we can mix things up a little.''
Landis believes that Armstrong has set up his training to be in peak condition for his final race. He's more concerned about going out on top in France than he is with winning this Tour.
''The Tour de Georgia is a wonderful race,'' Landis said. ''But the Tour de France is another story.''
Of course, no one is counting Armstrong out just yet. He's the ultimate competitor, an athlete who seems to thrive when he's at his most vulnerable.
''If he really, really wants something, he usually gets it,'' Landis said. ''Maybe he'll decide to be nice this week.''
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