PLOUAY, France -- Finally, Lance Armstrong turned on the speed as the Tour de France neared the parts of the race where he hopes to build his fourth straight championship.
A day after losing time in a crash, Armstrong covered the final part of Sunday's eighth stage through Brittany in exceptionally fast time to keep pace with race leader Igor Gonzalez Galdeano of Spain.
''That's probably the good news about the crash -- it's that I was really forced, for the first time in this race, to go as hard as I could, and I think it was pretty fast,'' Armstrong said. ''It was confirmation that I feel good.
''I've been feeling good in the races, but you ride along in the group and it's not possible to really test it.''
Karsten Kroon led a Dutch sweep of the top three places Sunday.
While remaining eighth overall, Armstrong said he was impressed by the speeds reached by riders in this year's Tour.
''They attack from the beginning, and they don't seem to ever stop,'' he said. ''The other day we did 100 kilometers in two hours -- I don't remember the last time we did that.
''The reason I think they are attacking is because the Tour has moved all the difficult stages to the rear. They know that now is their time -- it's a guess, a hypothesis.''
Those difficult stages start Thursday, when the Tour enters the mountains -- Armstrong country in each of his three victories.
On Monday, there's another stage where the American has prospered -- an individual time trial. But the defending champion said he was picking Gonzalez Galdeano to claim the 32.2-mile stretch.
''I'm second fiddle,'' Armstrong said. ''Galdeano will be good, he can win the time trial.''
Gonzalez Galdeano, who rides for Once, leads Armstrong by 34 seconds, thanks largely to a Saturday crash that caught Armstrong's back wheel and slowed him down by 27 seconds.
''If Galdeano has a super day on Monday and wins by another 30 seconds -- and he has (a lead of) over a minute -- then we will have to be aggressive'' later in the Tour, Armstrong said.
Last year, Armstrong locked up his third straight Tour title by blowing away the competition in the last individual time trial. He said he felt at the ''highest level'' of his career after the win.
But the American says his Spanish rival is feeding off the strong momentum gathered in the Tour's first week.
Gonzalez Galdeano ''will have the yellow jersey, (and be) very motivated. They (Once) seem to be very confident in their declarations -- so he's the favorite.''
The Spaniard said it would be ''a dream'' to retain the yellow jersey after Monday's ninth stage.
''I'm going to try to have a good time trial -- I'm against the best racer out there,'' Gonzalez Galdeano said, referring to Armstrong.
Armstrong won the Tour by almost seven minutes last year, thanks to his stunning performance in the Alps and the Pyrenees. He placed 35th in Sunday's eighth stage, a mostly flat 134.9-mile run from Saint-Martin-de-Landelles to Plouay in western Brittany, finishing in the main pack 1:55 behind stage-winner Kroon.
Kroon spoiled hopes of a French victory on Bastille Day. Last year, CSC-Tiscali rider Laurent Jalabert of France won the stage on July 14.
Kroon, of the Rabobank team, clocked 4:36:52. He is making his Tour debut and it was his first stage victory.
''I'm normally not very emotional, but I just can't hold back the tears after this win,'' Kroon said. ''I'm really moved.''
Servais Knaven and Erik Dekker finished second and third, respectively, with the same time as Kroon.
World road champion Oscar Freire dropped out of the Tour earlier Sunday. Freire, who won this year's second stage, injured his tailbone in a crash the day before.
''I decided it was probably better not to take the start today,'' he said. Hospital tests found no broken bones, but Freire said he had trouble sitting down.
Today's time trial takes riders from Lanester to Lorient.
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