TOURS, France -- Lance Armstrong pedaled beside the overall
leader of the Tour de France and admired his taste in fashion. The
six-time champion wants to be decked out in yellow again, and he
might not have to wait long.
"Regardless of how many I've had in my day, it's still a jersey
I cherish," Armstrong said.
Armstrong was content to ride safely in the main pack again
Monday. He finished in 87th place in the third stage while
Belgium's Tom Boonen sprinted to victory for the second straight
day, the route marked by towering gray castles, endless green
fields and dozens of vineyards.
There will be nothing cautious about the key time trial
Tuesday. Armstrong is a mere two seconds behind leader David
Zabriskie of the United States and will be looking to gain more
ground on his rivals, and perhaps move in front again.
Then, Armstrong -- who has worn the leader's jersey more than 60
times -- will truly consider himself on track for a seventh straight
title before retirement.
For the past two years, Armstrong's team won the team time trial
for the U.S. Postal Service squad. Now he wants to win for new
sponsor Discovery Channel in the nine-man discipline -- a 41.9-mile
ride from Tours to Blois.
"It's critical in that you can gain time and every second
counts," Armstrong said. "It's good for the morale and good for
the team to show they are strong. We've been lucky enough to win
the last two years and we'd like to try again."
A strong showing could bolster his advantage. The Texan leads
Jan Ullrich by 66 seconds, Alexandre Vinokourov by 51 and Ivan
Basso by 84.
"I can't go to bed at night thinking 100 percent we're going to
win," he said. "I think we're up against some strong teams. It's
critical at the end to ride steady because the course will be going
up and down."
Ullrich and Vinokourov will ride for the T-Mobile team while
Basso races for Team CSC, as does Zabriskie. Zabriskie finished in
56th place in Monday's 133-mile leg, which started from La
Chataigneraie in western France and snaked toward the medieval city
Boonen won in 4 hours, 36 minutes, 9 seconds and kept the green
jersey as the best sprinter. Peter Wrolich of Austria was second
and Stuart O'Grady of Australia was third.
Armstrong loathes such flat stages and was relieved simply to
have avoided an accident. Two years ago, he was caught in a
35-rider crash on the Tour and was lucky to escape with cuts and
"Days like today aren't necessarily my idea of a great time,"
he said. "Everybody does something a little bit crazy in front of
you on the finish."
Armstrong stayed in the middle of the pack as farmers put down
their tools and villagers gazed from stone houses at the mass of
cyclists streaming past in a militarylike unit. He even found time
to chat with Zabriskie, his former teammate at U.S. Postal.
"Lance was telling me to just enjoy the yellow jersey,"
Zabriskie said. "He asked me if he could have a turn."
Zabriskie fears Armstrong's turn is imminent.
"Holding onto the lead is going to be really tough," he said.
Time losses are limited during the team time trial after a rule
change was put in place before the 2004 Tour. The last of the 21
teams competing will concede a maximum of three minutes no matter
how far behind it finishes.
The team placing second loses a maximum of 20 seconds while
third and fourth place give away no more than 30 and 40 seconds,
respectively. This softens the blow in case of a heavy loss, but it
also nullifies the impact of catching Armstrong on a bad day.
The main threats to Armstrong's team are Team CSC and Phonak --
led by his former U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis and featuring
former world time trial champion Santiago Botero.
Last year, Phonak finished in second place. Team CSC is
confident of improving on fifth place.
"We've been training hard on this course," said Bjarne Riis,
the 1996 Tour winner now coaching the team. "And I think we're