TOURS, France Lance Armstrong pedaled beside the overall leader of the Tour de France and admired his taste in fashion. The six-time champion wants to be decked out in yellow again, and he might not have to wait long.
''Regardless of how many I've had in my day, it's still a jersey I cherish,'' Armstrong said.
Armstrong was content to ride safely in the main pack again Monday. He finished in 87th place in the third stage while Belgium's Tom Boonen sprinted to victory for the second straight day, the route marked by towering gray castles, endless green fields and dozens of vineyards.
There will be nothing cautious about the key time trial Tuesday. Armstrong is a mere two seconds behind leader David Zabriskie of the United States and will be looking to gain more ground on his rivals, and perhaps move in front again.
Then, Armstrong who has worn the leader's jersey more than 60 times will truly consider himself on track for a seventh straight title before retirement.
For the past two years, Armstrong's team won the team time trial for the U.S. Postal Service squad. Now he wants to win for new sponsor Discovery Channel in the nine-man discipline a 41.9-mile ride from Tours to Blois.
''It's critical in that you can gain time and every second counts,'' Armstrong said. ''It's good for the morale and good for the team to show they are strong. We've been lucky enough to win the last two years and we'd like to try again.''
A strong showing could bolster his advantage. The Texan leads Jan Ullrich by 66 seconds, Alexandre Vinokourov by 51 and Ivan Basso by 84.
''I can't go to bed at night thinking 100 percent we're going to win,'' he said. ''I think we're up against some strong teams. It's critical at the end to ride steady because the course will be going up and down.''
Ullrich and Vinokourov will ride for the T-Mobile team while Basso races for Team CSC, as does Zabriskie. Zabriskie finished in 56th place in Monday's 133-mile leg, which started from La Chataigneraie in western France and snaked toward the medieval city of Tours.
Boonen won in 4 hours, 36 minutes, 9 seconds and kept the green jersey as the best sprinter. Peter Wrolich of Austria was second and Stuart O'Grady of Australia was third.
Armstrong loathes such flat stages and was relieved simply to have avoided an accident. Two years ago, he was caught in a 35-rider crash on the Tour and was lucky to escape with cuts and bruises.
''Days like today aren't necessarily my idea of a great time,'' he said. ''Everybody does something a little bit crazy in front of you on the finish.''
Armstrong stayed in the middle of the pack as farmers put down their tools and villagers gazed from stone houses at the mass of cyclists streaming past in a militarylike unit. He even found time to chat with Zabriskie, his former teammate at U.S. Postal.
''Lance was telling me to just enjoy the yellow jersey,'' Zabriskie said. ''He asked me if he could have a turn.''
Zabriskie fears Armstrong's turn is imminent.
''Holding onto the lead is going to be really tough,'' he said.
Time losses are limited during the team time trial after a rule change was put in place before the 2004 Tour. The last of the 21 teams competing will concede a maximum of three minutes no matter how far behind it finishes.
The team placing second loses a maximum of 20 seconds while third and fourth place give away no more than 30 and 40 seconds, respectively. This softens the blow in case of a heavy loss, but it also nullifies the impact of catching Armstrong on a bad day.
The main threats to Armstrong's team are Team CSC and Phonak led by his former U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis and featuring former world time trial champion Santiago Botero.
Last year, Phonak finished in second place. Team CSC is confident of improving on fifth place.
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