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Armstrong lags, readies for team trial

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Now Lance Armstrong gets serious.

His bid for a fifth consecutive Tour de France title begins in earnest today in team time trials. By day's end he hopes to wear the leader's yellow jersey.

That would put him in excellent position before cycling's showcase race heads into the arduous climbs up the Alps on Saturday.

Armstrong conserved his strength Tuesday and finished 69th in the third stage, won by Alessandro Petacchi. Armstrong was 12th overall, 19 seconds behind leader Jean-Patrick Nazon.

Today, squads race separately against the clock over a 43-mile course.

Each rider gets his team's time, meaning Armstrong's challengers, or Armstrong himself, could lose vital seconds or minutes if their squads perform badly.

Each team rides as a unit and each rider receives the time recorded by the fifth member across the finish line. Teamwork is essential.

The stage "is really the first decisive move of the race," said Dan Osipow, general manager of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "With a bad team time trial, you can lose a handful of minutes and where do you find those minutes again when the Alps come? We want to gain time on all of our rivals."

Armstrong's squad races last because it leads the overall standings among the Tour's 22 teams. That will allow the riders to see how Armstrong's rivals did.

"It's a big advantage," Armstrong said.

The route from Joinville to Saint-Dizier starts with a significant climb. Officials from Armstrong's team scouted the route Tuesday.

Armstrong is trying to match the record of Miguel Indurain, who won five consecutive Tours from 1991-95. Armstrong has played it safe, trying to avoid accidents that pose a constant risk in the first week when riders are fresh and sprinters try to make the most of relatively flat and fast stages.

Tuesday, Petacchi sped to the finish in a sprint marked by another crash. It was his second stage win in three days.

Three of Armstrong's teammates, who have the job of shielding him from bumping in the main pack, finished grouped around the star rider.

"The team did a great job in protecting Lance," team spokesman Jogi Muller said. "They're still nervous, there are still crashes, still lucky not be involved."

Petacchi beat Romans Vainsteins and Oscar Freire in the third of 20 stages. Petacchi also won the first stage Sunday, which was marked by a crash involving about 35 riders. Armstrong was among them but was not seriously hurt.

"I had a great sprint," said Petacchi, of the Fassa Bortolo team. "I'm starting to get into form."

Rene Haselbacher crashed in the jostling of the final sprint. Doctors treated him by the side of the road and he finished 193rd of 196 riders.

On a hot, sunny day, Petacchi was timed in 3 hours, 27 minutes, 39 seconds, averaging 29 mph.

Nazon took the overall lead by picking up time bonuses in sprint stages along the 104-mile route. He finished 14th, in the same time as the winner, to become the first Frenchman since Francois Simon in 2001 to wear the yellow jersey.

"People will remember that I'm the first French rider in a yellow jersey at this centennial," Nazon said. "It has happened so quickly. I'm having a lot of difficulty understanding what's happening."

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and a threat this year, is sixth overall, five seconds ahead of Armstrong.

Ullrich is confident his Bianchi squad will do well in the time trial. But Stephen Roche, the 1987 Tour winner, was not so sure.

"Frankly, we're worried for Ullrich," he said. "He could lose two good minutes on Lance Armstrong and U.S. Postal."

Injured U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton showed plenty of grit, riding with a broken collarbone from Sunday's crash. He finished 43rd and was 10th overall. Before the injury, Hamilton had been considered another of Armstrong's potential rivals.

"I'm feeling about 80-85 percent," Hamilton said. "There is just this kind of dull, numbing pain which nags away at me."

100th Tour de France

TUESDAY: Stage 3, 104 miles, Charleville-Mezieres to Saint-Dizier.

WINNER: Alessandro Petacchi in 3 hours, 27 minutes, 39 seconds.

LANCE ARMSTRONG WATCH: The four-time champion finished 69th and was 12th overall, 19 seconds behind leader Jean-Patrick Nazon.

TODAY: Joinville to Saint-Dizier, 43-mile time trial in which teams are sent in 5-minute intervals.