Armstrong toppled in Tour de France prologue
Lance Armstrong was in unfamiliar territory Saturday on the cobblestone streets of Paris.
Normally, the four-time Tour de France champion is in Paris at the end of the Tour, standing on the podium, kissing the pretty girls and soaking up the spotlight as Tour champion.
But on Saturday, with the Tour celebrating its centenary with a special kick off in Paris, Armstrong rode to a less-than-convincing seventh place.
“I feel a little disappointed. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel great,” said Armstrong, seven seconds behind winner Brad McGee. “I probably started too slow and I was already two, three, four seconds behind in the first kilometer.”
Since his dramatic comeback from cancer, Armstrong has won two opening prologues and never finished worse than third en route to four consecutive Tour victories.
“No panic whatsoever’
Losing seven seconds to a prologue specialist such as the Australian McGee is no cause for worry, however, said Armstrong’s long-time coach and trainer, Chris Carmichael. After all, Armstrong’s winning margins in the three-week, 2,000-mile race have never been less than six minutes.
“There is no panic whatsoever,” Carmichael said. “Losing time is never insignificant, but I am less worried about Armstrong reacting badly about this. The race is underway and maybe we’ll look back and say we wish we had seven seconds, but I doubt it. A slow start to the key section of the course was the mistake.”
Tens of thousands of fans turned out to cheer on Armstrong, who began the 90th Tour as the favorite to win his record-tying fifth Tour. Only four cyclists – Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Belgian Eddy Merckx – have won five Tours, but Armstrong’s loss started lots of tongues wagging.
Chief rival Gilberto Simoni of Italy, a stronger climber who recently won the Giro d’Italia, said he was expected to lose 20 to 25 seconds and surprised everyone by finishing 21st Saturday, just six seconds behind Armstrong.
“I’m surprised because this is Lance’s specialty. I will wait to see him in the normal stages to see if it’s just one day or if it’s something else,” Simoni said. “I’m happy. It’s the best prologue of my career.”
Armstrong decided not ride the course before the afternoon start of the race and only followed in the U.S. Postal Service team car behind teammate Victor Hugo Pena. Armstrong said that could have made the difference.
“It’s my fault I didn’t come to Paris yesterday to ride the course, but that was my decision,” said Armstrong, whose meticulous preparation has been one the key ingredients to his Tour domination. “It was a hard course. The cobbles made it difficult. It felt like you were suffering the whole time.”
Cofidis rider David Millar seemed to have the prologue in the bag. The Scot was ripping the course, a solid five seconds ahead of McGee at the halfway point when disaster struck in the final kilometer. His chain slipped off the front chain ring and Millar had to reach down and pop it back into place. Luckily, he didn’t have to stop or change bikes, but it was enough to cost Millar the victory.
He and McGee finished in the same time, but McGee was just .08 seconds faster, good enough to become just the third Australian to wear the yellow jersey and the first to win a Tour opening prologue.
Several riders posted good rides as well, tipping good form and strong motivation. Jan Ullrich, the troubled German star who won the 1997 Tour but missed last year’s race after suffering two knee surgeries and a racing ban, finished fourth.
Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong lieutenant who helped the Texan win three Tours, finished one place ahead of his former boss.
Unlike Armstrong, Hamilton said he rode the prologue course six times and didn’t want to make any mistakes as he did in crashing in last year’s prologue of the Giro d’Italia.
“I went all out,” said Hamilton. “I rode the course six times, so I knew it well, but I did brake in the last corner. I probably didn’t have to but I’d rather lose a second or two than risk crashing.”
Hamilton called the short but fast cobble-stone course “hard” and said he was relieved that the 90th Tour is underway.
“It’s nice to get it started,” said Hamilton, who wanted to finish in the top 10. “I’m happy we’ve started. It’s great to start in Paris, but I try to focus on the task at hand. Racing in the Tour is like the Super Bowl, but I try to treat it like another race.”
The Tour kicks off Sunday with its first road stage, likely to be contested by the brawny sprinters.
With the mountains more than a week away, the 31-year-old Armstrong is just hoping his return to Paris for the July 27 Tour finale will be better than how it started.
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html