Armstrong: 'I still cherish the yellow jersey'

BLOIS, France -- The Tour de France turned cruel for one American and bright for another on 41 miles of French asphalt.

Dave Zabriskie, the plucky Utahn who beat Lance Armstrong in the opening-day time trial, fell out of the yellow jersey after crashing just over one mile from the finish line of Tuesday's fourth stage.

Armstrong, the man who beat cancer and won six consecutive Tours, slipped it on as a result.

For Armstrong, it was business as usual as his domineering Discovery Channel team won the team time trial stage for the third year running, this time by a razor-thin two-second margin.

For Zabriskie, a Tour rookie who many are touting as an heir to Armstrong's Tour throne, it was devastating.

"I am not happy with what happened, but that's life," Zabriskie said. "I'm extremely disappointed because we were very, very close to winning the stage and I was close to keeping the yellow jersey."

X-rays revealed no broken bones for Zabriskie, but he suffered cuts and scrapes to his left leg, hip, elbow and knee. He also received two stitches in his left hand and fell to ninth at 1:26 back.

Armstrong snuck through unscathed and pulled on the Tour's yellow jersey for the first time in what will be his final race as a professional.

With his confidence matching his growing strength, Armstrong is just 17 days away from retirement. The way this year's Tour unfolds, it's a very real possibility he could wear the maillot jaune all the way back to the Champs Elysées for the Tour's conclusion July 24.

"It's nice to have the jersey," said Armstrong, who now leads teammate George Hincapie by 55 seconds. "No matter how many times I've won it, I still cherish the yellow jersey."

Back in the high life
Armstrong's final Tour couldn't have started off in a more spectacular manner.

After an offseason riddled with doubts about his fitness, Armstrong used Saturday's opening time trial to emphatically remind everyone he's still the boss.

"I didn't like how I felt at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia or even the Dauphiné," Armstrong said, referring to sub-par performances earlier in the season. "But I found the motivation to get ready for the Tour. I want to win my final race."

Armstrong erased those doubts in the first stage, a 19km race against the clock across the wind-swept island in Noirmoutier on France's West Coast.

In the equivalent of a first-round knockdown, Armstrong took more than a minute out of the entire 189-rider field except winner Zabriskie and two others. Armstrong would have passed anyone else had they been the Texan's one-minute man.

That unfortunate honor went to 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich, the big red-headed German who Armstrong consistently calls his most dangerous rival. Armstrong roared past Ullrich's right shoulder with about 4km to go in a move the French sport daily L'Equipe called, "No Pity."

Armstrong didn't seem to mind that young Zabriskie was getting all the attention in the opening days of the Tour.

In fact, Armstrong seems to be trying to enjoy what will be his final Tour, even though the Tour's extreme profile hardly makes it a French picnic.

"Every day I start a stage I realize I'm one day closer to retirement," he said. "I'm trying to stay relaxed, to enjoy it, to have some fun."

Fun for Armstrong usually means suffering for his opponents.

Yellow man from Utah
Zabriskie's three-day run in yellow couldn't have come at a better time.

With Armstrong's retirement looming at the end of the Tour, many are searching for the American rider to step up.

Despite his crash Tuesday, many believe they've found it in the lanky, witty 26-year-old from Salt Lake City.

"Zabriskie's the future of American cycling," said CSC teammate Bobby Julich, who finished third in 1998 Tour. "Of all the young guys racing in Europe now, he's the one that's impressed me most."

It was Zabriskie that kept Armstrong out of the yellow in stage 1. His average speed of 54.676kph set the record for the fastest time trial in Tour history, surpassing the mark set by American cycling legend Greg LeMond in 1989 when he won the Tour in a final-day time trial in Paris. (Chris Boardman holds the prologue record 55.152kph on a 7.2km course).

"I didn't think I could beat Lance," Zabriskie beamed. "The feeling is amazing, unbelievable."

With the win, he became just the third American in Tour history (Armstrong, Greg LeMond) to wear the elusive yellow jersey.

Can anyone beat Lance?
With Armstrong back in yellow, the attention turns to who can possibly take it away from him.

No one's been able to do it in six years, but the usual cast of characters promises to keep trying.

Topping the list is Ullrich, who has been Armstrong's whipping boy for so long it seems like he's grown comfortable in the runner-up status. A winner in 1997, it was Ullrich who the pundits said would be the first one to win six Tours.

Eight years later, Ullrich is still chasing No. 2, but Tuesday's team time trial gave him a fresh jolt of confidence.

Ullrich's Tour got off to a horrible start when he crashed into the team car Friday, cutting his face and neck. Team doctors said Ullrich escaped serious injury, with a shard of glass just missed an important artery by a fraction of an inch.

By Tuesday, a revived Ullrich drove the T-Mobile team to a respectable third, 30 seconds back of Armstrong, and now stands 14th at 1:36 back.

"The first stage is forgotten," Ullrich said. "The mountains will decide this Tour. I am feeling better every day. I am going to fight with everything I have to beat him."

Ivan Basso, the third-place rider last year who was the only rider to beat Armstrong in the mountains, sounds confident ahead of the first climbing stage in the Alps starting July 12.

"My Tour starts in a week," said Basso, one of Zabriskie's teammate at Team CSC. "What happened today was too bad. We could have won, but now Armstrong has 1:26 on me. It was a mistake, now we have to forget it."

It's hard to read how the Spanish mountain men are holding up until the Tour pushes into the mountains. Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) both promise to attack, but they've said that before.

Armstrong's luck keeps following him, however.

On Tuesday, Zabriskie's Team CSC was leading Armstrong's Discovery Channel by six seconds with two kilometers to go. Zabriskie crashed and Armstrong didn't, so the spoils go to the winner.

It's obvious Armstrong's not going to lose the Tour by any mistake he might make. If someone wants to win, they're going to have to take the fight to Armstrong.

Take away the nail-biting 2003 -- when Armstrong won by just 61 seconds for his narrowest margin of victory -- and he's never truly been under threat.

That doesn't stop Armstrong from feeling wary. He's too experienced to know that having the yellow jersey in stage four doesn't mean anything when there are still 17 stages to go.

"I was at my most confident in 2003, and look where that got me," he said. "I'm always cautious, nervous, worried. That's the best way to race the Tour."

A bit of luck doesn't hurt, either.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain. The author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress, this is his 10th year covering the Tour de France.