CHATEAU-THIERRY, France -- The Spaniards sped to victory and a blown tire stalled the rival Danes, ensuring a second-place finish Wednesday for Lance Armstrong's team in a Tour de France time trial.
Team Once won the stage in 1 hour, 19 minutes, 49 seconds in the 41.85-mile run from Epernay to Chateau-Thierry, northeast of Paris. Armstrong and his U.S. Postal teammates were 16 seconds behind.
''As close as it was, there's a little bit of regret,'' said Armstrong, bidding for a fourth Tour championship. ''We could have been a little more aggressive in the first 20 kilometers (12.4 miles).''
Still, he said, it was among the best showings by USPS in its current form.
''I'm happy with the team,'' he said. ''We had a good ride.''
The strong performance by U.S. Postal helped Armstrong move into third place -- seven seconds behind -- after starting the day in fifth.
Igor Gonzalez Galdeano, riding for Once, became the first Spaniard in seven years to don the yellow jersey of the overall leader. Joseba Beloki was in second, four seconds behind his teammate.
Thousands of fans lined the route for Wednesday's fourth stage, marked by cloudy skies but only one brief dose of rain near the finish. That was a contrast to the downpour during the time trial a year ago, when two of Armstrong's teammates fell on the slick roadway.
''Compared to last year, it's a big relief -- coming in second without any problems,'' Armstrong said.
The Danish team CSC-Tiscali finished third, but had a rough ride.
CSC-Tiscali, whose racers include France's Laurent Jalabert and American Tyler Hamilton, clocked the fastest time through the first two intermediate splits. Then Michael Sandstod got a flat tire and had to change his bike. His teammates slowed to wait for him before speeding ahead. But the damage was done -- the team lost time.
''There was a misunderstanding,'' Jalabert said. ''We had agreed on a strategy of not waiting for anyone -- and we didn't keep to it.''
CSC-Tiscali finished 30 seconds behind USPS. The overall standings underscored the importance of faring well in the team time trial.
After Wednesday's stage, the first 14 racers in the overall standings were either from Once or USPS. The Telekom team of German sprinting specialist Erik Zabel, who held the yellow jersey coming into the day's action, finished nearly three minutes behind Once. Zabel sank to 39th place overall.
In addition, the team time trial winner can reap an important psychological advantage over other riders, said Frenchman Bernard Hinault, one of only four riders to win the Tour de France five times.
''The time trial gives us an idea of the strength of each team,'' he said. ''It's difficult to make any predictions about them before this test, because the teams have changed so much since last year.''
Last week, at a news conference before the start of the Tour, Armstrong said he believed this year's Postal Service team is the best yet. The team gained two new riders -- American Floyd Landis and Czech Pavel Padrnos -- and saw the return of Benoit Joachim of Luxembourg, whom team leaders selected for the 2000 Tour but not last year's.
International Cycling Union officials conducted blood tests on six teams, including Armstrong's, on Wednesday, on the prowl for doping. None of the tests turned up positive. Doping has rocked the cycling world in recent years and nearly did in the 1998 Tour.
Thursday's fifth stage takes the 189 cyclists along a 120.9-mile stretch from Soissons, the capital city of the first French king, Clovis, to Rouen in Normandy.
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