The first day of the Tour counldn’t have gone much better for the defending champion and his team.
Having already put 15 seconds between themselves and Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong and US Postal could scarcely conceal a mild delight and surprise at the first day of their Tour campaign in Lige on Saturday evening. Armstrong had looked like a man in a hurry from the moment he left the start ramp at 7.09pm. Stomping on the pedals with a determination not seen since Luz Ardiden and the Tour of 2003, the would-be most successful Tour rider of all time eventually trailed stage-winner Fabian Cancellara by just two seconds. “I’m slightly disappointed to have missed out on the jersey, but the sensations I had on the course made up for that,” Armstrong, who declined to don the yellow jersey as defending champion yesterday, commented. “I knew as soon I started warming up that I was on a good day. In fact, I’ve felt very good for two or three days now. A six-kilometre prologue, however, doesn’t make a Tour de France. I’m just glad, really glad to have got started after all of the formalities and tension of the build-up. It was also a great day for the team: to have five men in the top 20 on the stage is excellent.” Although confessing his surprise at what was by some distance Ullrich’s worst ever Tour prologue finish (16th at 17 seconds down), Armstrong refused to draw premature conclusions: “It could be that Jan’s preparation is more geared towards the long, hard climbs in the mountains. I’m not reading too much into it. Trust me. he’ll be super later on in the race,” said the Texan. Three weeks ago, Armstrong himself had to explain away a crushing time trial defeat at he hands of Iban Mayo and the Mont Ventoux at the Dauphin Libr. Last night the American admitted that he was “smiling internally tonight because, after the Ventoux, I also had serious doubts. I know now, though, that I wasn’t at 100% there whereas others were,” he explained. Armstrong’s US Postal boss Johan Bruyneel claimed a similar source of satisfaction: “We hadn’t expect to lose so much time on the Ventoux, so I was a little concerned at that point. Nevertheless, we had decided early in the year that the Dauphin wouldn’t be the big objective it had been before; last year it took too much out of Lance. We learned our lesson from that.” Bruyneel was happy, too, he said, because Armstrong had supplied the perfect, instant riposte to those suggesting that a turbulent approach to the Tour might take its toll on his 32-year-old body: “He’s proved that what people were saying wasn’t true. In fact, he’ physically a lot better than last year. In 2003, Lance was never at 100% during the Tour.” “Did Ullrich’s performance surprise me? A little, perhaps,” Bruyneel continued. “Maybe Jan wasn’t super today: he’ll certainly get better as the Tour goes on. From our point of view, for Lance to finish two seconds down on Cancellara and ahead of two more prologue specialists like McGee and Gutierrez is a good indicator of his form. In addition to Lance’s result, I’m very pleased with the team today. We had a meeting last night and agreed that it was important to all do a good prologue, to lay down a marker for the team time trial on Wednesday. I think we did that.”