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Armstrong third in Tour prologue

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

DUNKIRK, France -- Lance Armstrong finished third in the opening prologue of the Tour de France on Saturday, with the yellow jersey now belonging to a Frenchman.

Armstrong, going for a third straight title in cycling's showcase event, was four seconds behind leader Christophe Moreau after the first day of the three-week race.

''I'm not disappointed,'' Armstrong said. ''I've been feeling very good the last few weeks and that's what's important.''

Armstrong was applauded by thousands of fans as he completed the 5.09-mile individual time trial through the streets of this port city.

The Texan was timed in 9 minutes, 24 seconds, a second slower than Igor Gonzalez Galdeano of Spain.

As defending champion, Armstrong was last to start and wore the yellow jersey he would soon yield to Moreau, who finished fourth in last year's Tour.

''It's a gift from God that pushed me forward, that gave me strength and concentration until the end,'' Moreau said. ''I've got nothing to lose in the Tour anymore.''

Armstrong is trying to become only the second American -- after Greg LeMond -- to win the Tour de France three times and the first to do so three years in a row.

''Lance Armstrong will still be the strongman and the man to beat,'' Moreau said.

That view was shared by retired cycling great Miguel Indurain, the only man to have won the Tour five times in a row.

''He's the biggest favorite to win the Tour,'' Indurain said Saturday. ''He's in shape, he's very good. ... But now he has all the responsibility of winning the Tour.''

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion, finished fourth, seven seconds behind Moreau. Ullrich is considered Armstrong's main rival for the title. France's Florent Brard was a fraction of a second slower than the German and placed fifth.

Britain's David Millar, who won last year's opening time trial, finished 110th after falling in the next-to-last turn.

Armstrong's warm reception by the crowd contrasted with the jeers he and his U.S. Postal Service squad received Friday night during the presentation ceremony for the 21 teams.

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc attributed the cold welcome to U.S. Postal's decision not to include team member and local star Cedric Vasseur in the Tour squad.

While Armstrong's recovery from cancer has made for an inspirational comeback, he has yet to fully win the hearts of the French fans.

Armstrong counts time trials among his many specialties. He won three time trial stages in 1999 and one in 2000. He built an unassailable lead in last month's Tour of Switzerland by winning an uphill time trial in the Alps.

Sunday's first stage is a 121-mile run over the flat countryside of France's northern Opal Coast, between St. Omer and Boulogne sur Mer.

Most of the following week features similar stages -- with a two-day crossover into Belgium.

Armstrong's team will try to save its energy for the real test, the five days of mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees that make up the middle of the Tour.

The race will cover more than 2,100 miles and ends July 29 with the traditional ride down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Leblanc likened Armstrong to five-time Tour winners Eddy Merckx, the top star of the 1960s and 1970s, and Indurain, the star of the 1990s.

''There are generations that are marked by a dominant champion,'' Leblanc said.



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