"I don't know how to defend the leader's yellow jersey," he said a week after losing it to the Estonian, Jaan Kirsipuu. "We have two difficult days in the mountains, but I am confident and I have confidence in my team. I was as nervous as hell when I had the yellow jersey a week ago. May be this time I will not be so bad."
His victory over Switzerland's Alex Zulle by 58 seconds came as the world time trial champion, Abraham Olano, and another American contender, Bobby Julich, crashed. Julich, a surprise third overall last year, was taken to hospital where he was detained for observation. "There are no fractures, but he has a swelling on his chest," said the Tour doctor, Gerard Porte.
Olano escaped with injured pride. "When Armstrong passed me you can imagine how I felt. It is a terrible blow for a time trial specialist like me. I cannot explain it. Armstrong and Zulle were going well, and I just blew up."
The Spaniard was soon back in the saddle after tumbling over some protective bales, before Armstrong sailed past after starting two minutes behind the winner of last year's Vuelta a Espana.
Armstrong powered on to overtake the Belgian Tom Steels, who had set out six minutes before the American, and the crowd sensed a great victory was in the making.
"I am too tired to be happy. I am blown away more than I have ever been," Armstrong said after a 49kph ride through the Meuse countryside drove him to a Tour lead of 2min 20sec over Christophe Moreau.
"I have never been this tired after a race," said Armstrong. "I could not ride another metre. I am just dead. I started as hard as I could and just kept going as hard as was possible. When I saw the `40km to go' sign I was already tired, and I thought: `I am in trouble'."
Others, however, were in deeper trouble. Julich fell on a descent 30km into his ride, and Armstrong said later: "I warned my team about that spot. It was very dangerous. It was the one bad turn on the course."
Two vehicles were excluded from the Tour for a day because they baulked Richard Virenque, and the French favourite banged angrily on their windows as he passed.
Chris Boardman finished in sixth place in 1:12:08, but had aimed to be a couple of minutes faster. "I did quite well really, and I am happy. I gave it my best shot," the British cyclist said. "It has been three years since I have ridden a time trial of this distance, and it is not very pleasant.
"It is difficult to measure your effort over this period of time. The last time I covered 56km in an hour was on the track at Manchester," Boardman added, referring to his world hour record of 56.375km three years ago.
"I am calmer this year, perhaps it is because I am coming to the end of my career," he said, and decided not to watch his rivals on television. "Instead I am going for a haircut in the Tour village."
So he did not see Zulle hack, rather than trim, 2min 34sec from his best efforts, and the Swiss performance was looking good until Armstrong arrived.
And so the history-makers of the first week, Kirsipuu and Mario Cipollini, slipped out of contention. Kirsipuu was the first Estonian to win a stage and wear the yellow jersey, and yesterday was his seventh and final day in the leader's colours in a week that have made him front-page news at home and drawn six-figure TV audiences.
Cipollini decided to contest the time trial as a lap of honour for the French fans who had supported him, and, with the Tour due to make a brief visit to Italy on Tuesday, he chose to make that stage his Italian lap of honour.
The Italian normally avoids the mountains, but there is an extra reason for tackling the terrain he loathes. He has a rendezvous with his sponsors, who had told Cipollini before the Tour that he would be one of their budget cuts at the end of the year.
The Italian goes to the meeting with more bargaining power than he had when he first heard that he was to be released. In two days the big Tuscan sprinter has rewritten a chapter in Tour history by being only the fourth man to win four stages consecutively.
The last was Frenchman Charles Pelissier 69 years ago, and with his victory at Thionville Cipollini also became Italy's top stage-winner, with 13 to the 12 of Gino Bartali.
TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS
Seventh stage (Avesnes-sur-Helpe to Thionville, 227km): 1 M Cipollini (It) Saeco 5hr 26min 59sec; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 3 J Kirsipuu (Est) Casino; 4 H Vogels (Aus) Credit Agricole; 5 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre; 6 D Nazon (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 7 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 8 J Casper (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 9 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 10 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 11 L Michaelsen (Den) La Francaise de Jeux; 12 N Minali (It) Cantina Tollo; 13 E Aggiano (It) Vitalicio Seguros; 14 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 15 S Hinault (Fr) Credit Agricole; 16 L Dierckxsens (Bel) Lampre; 17 S Martinello (It) Polti; 18 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 19 C Mengin (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 20 C da Cruz (Fr) Big Mat all same time. Selected: 120 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole s/t. Leading overall standings after Saturday's stage: 1 Kirsipuu 32hr 24min 46sec; 2 Cipollini +14sec; 3 O'Grady +34; 4 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom +44; 5 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +54; 6 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +1min 05sec; 7 Hincapie +1:06; 8 T Steels (Bel) Mapei +1:09; 9 Moreau s/t; 10 Simon +1:12; 11 A Vinokourov (Kazak) Casino +1:15; 12 S Gonzalez (Sp) ONCE s/t; 13 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +1:17; 14 A Peron (It) ONCE; 15 C Vandevelde (US) US Postal; 16 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco all s/t; 17 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +1:20; 18 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei +1:22; 19 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole; 20 B Julich (US) Cofidis both s/t. Selected: 126 Boardman +16:26. Points category: 1 Kirsipuu 215pts; 2 Cipollini 182; 3 O'Grady 179. Mountains category: 1 M Piccoli (It) Lampre 32pts; 2 L Brochard (Fr) Festina 15; 3 L Lebreton (Fr) Big Mat 13.
Eighth stage (individual time trial, Metz, 56.5km, 35 miles): 1 Armstrong 1hr 8min 36sec; 2 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto +58sec; 3 Moreau +2min 05sec; 4 Olano +2:22; 5 T Hamilton (US) U.S. Postal +3:31; 6 Boardman +3:32; 7 A Galdeano (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +3:41; 8 Voigt +3:42; 9 O'Grady +3:45; 10 Dufaux +3:56; 11 Peron +3:59; 12 Nardello (It) Mapei +4:12; 13 Gonzalez +4:16; 14 Casero +4:35; 15 L Rodriguez (Sp) ONCE +4:39; 16 M Backstedt (Swe) Credit Agricole +4:42; 17 Tonkov s/t; 18 P Padrnos (Cz Rep) Lampre +4:56; 19 G Maignan (Fr) Casino +4:58; 20 M Lelli (It) Cofidis +5:13. Selected: 46 R Virenque (Fr) Polti +6:30; 103 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank + 8:56. Abandoned: B Julich (US) Cofidis.
Leading overall standings: 1 Armstrong 33hr 34min 16sec; 2 Moreau +2min 20sec; 3 Olano +2:33; 4 O'Grady +3:25; 5 Galdeano +4:10; 6 Voigt +4:10; 7 Dufaux +4:19; 8 Peron +4:22; 9 Gonzalez +4:37; 10 Nardello +4:46; 11 J Kirsipuu +4:57; 12 A Casero +5:01; 13 Tonkov +5:10; 14 Backstedt +5:15; 15 Rodriguez +5:17; 16 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +5:38; 17 P Savoldelli (It) Saeco +6:00; 18 K Livingston (US) US Postal +6:06; 19 S Wesemann (Ger) Telekom +6:08; 20 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank +6:09. Selected: 37 Virenque +7:21; 97 Boogerd +16:01; 123 Boardman +19:04. Points category: 1 Kirsipuu 215; 2 Cipollini 182; 3 O'Grady 181. Mountains category: 1 Piccoli 37pts; 2 Brochard 15; 3 L Lebreton 13.