L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France Lance Armstrong took the overall leader's yellow jersey for the first time in the Tour de France, but he showed signs that he may not be the dominant force of years past.
The four-time champion struggled up the legendary ascent to the Alpine ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez a grueling climb he mastered just two years ago and finished third in the eighth stage of the Tour.
''If you'd asked me a month ago: 'Are you going to suffer like that on L'Alpe d'Huez?' I would have said, 'No way!''' Armstrong said Sunday. ''It was a hard day.''
He did, however, complete the stage close enough to the winner, Iban Mayo of Spain, to take the overall lead in the race.
''I'm perhaps not as strong as the other years,'' said Armstrong, who usually leaves rivals in his wake in the punishing mountains. ''Let's hope that things get better and not worse.''
In overall standings, Spain's Joseba Beloki, the 2002 Tour runner-up, is second, 40 seconds back; Mayo trails Armstrong by 1 minute, 10 seconds.
''A dream has become reality,'' Mayo said after winning Sunday's stage. ''L'Alpe d'Huez is a mythical stage.''
Armstrong didn't respond Sunday when Mayo broke away dramatically from the champion and other riders up the 8.5-mile climb, with its 21 hairpin bends.
Peaking at 6,105 feet, L'Alpe d'Huez is a renown part of the Tour's 100-year history. In 2001, Armstrong toyed with his rivals, making them think he was exhausted, before powering up the mountain to win.
Sunday's race was different.
''I didn't have the greatest sensations or the greatest legs today no bluffing,'' said Armstrong, who is trying to match Miguel Indurain's record of five straight titles.
With Mayo racing ahead, Armstrong was left to battle moves by Beloki and American Tyler Hamilton, who riding with a broken collarbone, the result of a crash on the Tour's second day.
The sensational to-and-fro dogfight between Beloki and Armstrong carried them up the mountain, to the delight of tens of thousands of cheering fans who lined the narrow, twisting route.
''I decided to just let Mayo go and limit my losses and cover Beloki because he's close on the classification and that worked out OK,'' Armstrong said.
The 135-mile stage from Sallanches included the Col du Galibier, which towers 8,728 feet. Armstrong said he could tell going up the huge climb that he wasn't having a great day.
''It was a really hard stage from the start,'' he said. ''The whole pack attacked.''
Armstrong finished the stage 2 minutes, 12 seconds behind Mayo. Alexandre Vinokourov of Team Telekom was second, 1 minute and 45 seconds behind Mayo.
''The attack by Beloki was very strong,'' Armstrong said. ''The attack by Mayo wasn't too serious because he was a bit behind in the standings.''
Mayo said he expects Armstrong will watch him closely now.
''He will try and control me more and won't let me go,'' he said. ''The Tour is very long with some difficult stages, so I will take it day by day.''
Armstrong blamed teammate Manuel Beltran for some of his difficulties at L'Alpe d'Huez. Beltran, a newcomer to the U.S. Postal Service squad, powered into the climb at top speed, hoping to help Armstrong shake off his rivals. But Armstrong said the Spaniard went too fast.
''A fast tempo is a good thing but that was supersonic and that's not a good thing,'' he said. ''Obviously we're going to talk about that tonight. It won't happen again.''
The 1997 champion, Jan Ullrich, was left behind on the dizzying climb. He finished 13th, 1 minute and 24 seconds off Armstrong's pace, and is eighth overall.
But Armstrong still considers him a threat.
''It was important to get distance from Jan Ullrich. That's the good news of the day,'' he said. But ''I still think he's one of the most dangerous riders in the race. Jan typically gets better as the Tour goes on and this Tour has a long way to go and I won't forget that.''
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