SAINT-DIZIER, France Now Lance Armstrong gets serious.
His bid for a fifth straight Tour de France title begins in earnest Wednesday in team time trials. By day's end, a member of Armstrong's team could be wearing the leader's yellow jersey.
That also would put Armstrong in excellent position before cycling's showcase race heads into the arduous climbs up the Alps on Saturday.
Armstrong conserved his strength Tuesday and finished 69th in the third stage, won by Italy's Alessandro Petacchi. Armstrong is 12th overall, 19 seconds behind leader France's Jean-Patrick Nazon.
On Wednesday, squads race separately against the clock over a 43-mile course. Each rider gets his team's time, meaning Armstrong's challengers or Armstrong himself could lose vital seconds or minutes if their squads perform badly.
Wednesday ''is really the first decisive move of the race,'' said Dan Osipow, general manager of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team.
''With a bad team time trial, you can lose a handful of minutes and where do you find those minutes again when the Alps come?'' he said. ''We want to gain time on all of our rivals.''
Armstrong's squad races last because it leads the overall standings among the Tour's 22 teams. That will allow the riders to see how Armstrong's rivals did.
''It's a big advantage,'' said Armstrong, whose teammate, Victor Hugo Pena, is ninth overall and could be donning the yellow jersey if the USPS team has a big day.
The route from Joinville to Saint-Dizier starts with a significant climb. Officials from Armstrong's team scouted the route Tuesday.
''The beginning's hard,'' Armstrong said.
Last year, U.S. Postal placed second, 16 seconds behind the Once team.
''We all want the yellow jersey,'' team spokesman Jogi Muller said. ''It's within reach, we've got an incredibly strong team.''
Armstrong is trying to match the record of Spain's Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tours from 1991-95.
He has played it safe so far, trying to avoid accidents that pose a constant risk in the first week when riders are fresh and sprinters try to make the most of relatively flat and fast stages.
On Tuesday, Petacchi sped to the finish in a sprint marked by another crash. It was his second stage win in three days.
Three of Armstrong's teammates, whose job is to shield him from bumping in the main pack, finished grouped around the star rider.
''The team did a great job in protecting Lance,'' Muller said. ''They're still nervous, there are still crashes, still lucky not be involved.''
Petacchi beat Latvia's Romans Vainsteins and Spain's Oscar Freire in the third of the three-week Tour's 20 stages. Petacchi also won the first stage Sunday, which was marked by a crash involving about 35 riders. Armstrong was among them but was not seriously hurt.
''I had a great sprint,'' said Petacchi, of the Italian Fassa Bortolo team. ''I'm starting to get into form.''
Rene Haselbacher of Austria crashed in the jostling of the final sprint. Doctors treated him by the side of the road and he finished 193rd of 196 riders.
Petacchi was timed on a hot, sunny day in 3 hours, 27 minutes, 39 seconds, averaging 29 mph.
Nazon took the overall lead by picking up time bonuses in sprint stages along the 104-mile route. He finished in 14th place, in the same time as the winner, to become the first Frenchman since Francois Simon in 2001 to wear the yellow jersey.
''People will remember that I'm the first French rider in a yellow jersey at this centennial,'' said Nazon, of the French Jean Delatour team. ''It has happened so quickly. I'm having a lot of difficulty understanding what's happening.''
Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and a threat this year, is sixth overall, five seconds ahead of Armstrong.
Ullrich is confident his Bianchi squad will do well in the time trial. But Stephen Roche, the 1987 Tour winner, was not so sure.
''Frankly, we're worried for Ullrich,'' he said. ''He could lose two good minutes on Lance Armstrong and U.S. Postal.''
Injured U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton showed plenty of grit Tuesday, riding with a broken collarbone from Sunday's crash. He finished 43rd and was 10th overall. Before the injury, Hamilton had been considered another of Armstrong's potential rivals.
''I'm feeling about 80-85 percent,'' Hamilton said. ''There is just this kind of dull, numbing pain which nags away at me.''
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