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MONTPELLIER, France -- The Tour de France entered a time warp Tuesday, as 37-year-old Lance Armstrong came within a spoke's width of going into the overall lead of the race and sat down in a sweltering van behind the finish line to talk to reporters.
But there was one thing that distinguished the scene from any of the years when Armstrong held a choke hold on the Tour from 1999 through 2005.
Lance Armstrong confessed.
"Twelve months ago, I expected it to be easier," he said after his Astana team crossed the line 18 seconds faster than Garmin-Slipstream in the Stage 4 team time trial, lifting him to second place, 0.22 of a second behind Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara. That was déjà vu in and of itself. Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams historically dominated the TTT, and success in the event was crucial to his narrowest victory in 2003.
"Six months ago, I did not expect [to be in contention]," Armstrong continued. "I realized 'Oh, s---. This is harder than I thought.' And that's the truth.''
Armstrong added that he had been wrong to say, in a recently published biography, that the men he would be competing against this year weren't in his league.
"I was disrespectful to [2008 winner] Carlos Sastre, [2008 fourth-place finisher] Christian Vande Velde, the guys who were a presence in last year's Tour, and that was not correct," Armstrong said. "This is not easy, and it will not be easy, if I'm lucky enough to win again. Today, I'm realistic. I have both feet on the ground."
The day's events light a long fuse that will burn until Friday's Stage 7, which could feature fireworks on the final climb up to the Arcalis mountain pass in the tiny country of Andorra.
Armstrong and Alberto Contador could provide the rare spectacle of teammates attacking each other on the ascent. They are second and third, respectively, in the standings, 19 seconds apart, thanks to the split in the peloton forced by Team Columbia's shock attack Monday while the peloton was in the doldrums. Astana now has four men in the top five of the overall standings.
The American said Tuesday he thought his team could afford to protect two leaders, meaning that the support riders on the team will be spread thinner. But Armstrong strongly implied the day could end with a clearer picture of where the team should invest its energy.
"After that day, it becomes a different situation, and then we'll have to talk," he said. "I think we both go in protected and then see what happens on the top of Arcalis."
Up to this point, Armstrong has been able to use familiar old tools -- savvy riding in the front in Monday's wild stage, and the paramilitary punch and precision of the team time trial. Starting Friday, he may enter the uncharted territory of trying to assert himself midrace instead of having a team he knows is constructed around him.
Astana looked unified on the road at least, finishing with six men, one more than the required number. The group included Contador and Armstrong, who was fifth wheel, meaning that his time of 46 minutes, 29 seconds was the one that actually counted for the team.
Sweating out the result, quite literally, were Cancellara, who could see from the intermediate time checks that Armstrong was breathing down his neck, and the entire Garmin-Slipstream team, which had the best time of the 19 other teams -- 46:47 at that point.
Colorado-based Garmin turned in an extraordinary performance after the first hill on the course proved to be too much for four of its riders. With 17 miles of the 24-mile course left, Garmin was down to the minimum. A crash or a mechanical problem could have put a huge dent in Vande Velde's podium hopes, as well as wounding the pride of a team that is one of cycling's best at the event.
The team is stacked with time-trial specialists who put their heads down and blasted through gusty winds on narrow roads that had led to numerous accidents earlier in the day. Utah native Dave Zabriskie and Great Britain's David Millar and Bradley Wiggins are world class at the event, and Vande Velde is just a tick off their level. Canada's Ryder Hesjedal was the man forced to keep up, which he valiantly did. After crossing the finish line, Hesjedal dismounted, gingerly made his way to a curb, sat down and lowered his head into his hands, completely depleted.
"The guys came out with a knife between their teeth and tried to pull off a stage win,'' Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters said. "Horsepower won today. They were a little smoother than we were."
Vande Velde is now the best-placed overall contender after the Astana riders at 1:16 behind Cancellara. Race officials decided not to put limits on the time gains in the team time trial -- something they experimented with a few years ago -- so Garmin's effort was crucial to Vande Velde's cause. Other top riders ended the day considerably in the hole: Sastre is 2:44 off the pace, Australia's Cadel Evans 2:59 short and Russia's Denis Menchov, who crashed, is 3:52 back, which could push them to take risks on Arcalis Friday.
The Tour had to dig deep into the decimal points to determine who would wear the yellow jersey Wednesday, but Cancellara, the man who postponed history Tuesday, deserves the coveted garment he pulled on for the fourth straight day. Caught next to a road divider when Columbia launched its fateful breakaway Monday, he popped his bike up onto the concrete like a stunt rider and wheeled along until he could jump back down onto the road.
"Swiss precision,'' Cancellara said, smiling, after the margin became official. "Time was invented in Switzerland."
A drained Columbia team, meanwhile, paid for Monday's effort that helped net Mark Cavendish his second stage win. Columbia finished fourth but still has four riders within 1:41 of Cancellara.Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.