Cycling: Armstrong spurred on to greater heights by fresh doping claims

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The Independent Online

Lance Armstrong's final Tour de France kicked off in typically dramatic style as he started Saturday making a ferocious denial of new doping allegations and finished it off with his best time trial performance since his racing comeback began last year.

Armstrong woke up on Saturday morning to find the Wall Street Journal had published a second interview overnight with his former team-mate Floyd Landis, once again accusing the seven-times Tour winner of doping.

Just as when Landis made an initial series of accusations in the same newspaper in May, Armstrong went for a blanket rejection of the claims, comparing Landis's credibility to "sour milk. Once you take the first sip you don't have to drink the rest to know it has all gone bad."

Armstrong is famous for feeding off his anger over doping allegations to turn in blistering performances on the bike and, true to form, after Landis's latest episode of finger-pointing the Texan finished an impressive fourth in the opening, rain-soaked prologue in Rotterdam, won by Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara.

The best Briton was the veteran David Millar in third, while Sky's Bradley Wiggins turned in a surprisingly lacklustre performance, finishing 77th. Armstrong was just 22 seconds behind the Olympic trial champion Cancellara, putting him in pole position of all the overall contenders – and demonstrating that, even at 38, he is worthy of being considered Albert Contador's most dangerous rival.

"I would like to say I wasn't surprised, but I can't, I'm surprised and pleased" Armstrong said later. "If somebody had told me this morning that I would finish ahead of all the favourites, I'd have signed with both hands."

Contador came the closest to Armstrong, finishing 27 seconds behind Cancellara. The Spaniard argued – unconvincingly, given that heavy early rain had dried up by the time he started – that he had not wanted to take any risks on the wet course.

While Contador at least limited his losses, the prologue proved tougher going for Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, who lost over 40 seconds to Armstrong.

Last year's runner-up behind Contador in Paris, Schleck was so furious with his poor ride he refused to talk to reporters afterwards.

But it was Britain's Wiggins who was probably the most disappointed overall contender after a plan to take advantage of the stormy weather forecast on Saturday in Holland backfired.

Scientists working for British Cycling before the 2008 Beijing Olympics had discovered that before thunderstorms bike riders' average speed increased by as much as a tenth of a second per kilometre, and with a storm brewing for Rotterdam on Saturday evening, Wiggins made a deliberately early start.

However, the forecast proved inaccurate and the rain started earlier than expected, too, forcing Wiggins to ride through a downpour.

Rather than setting record times, the Briton ended up in damage limitation mode, taking the rain-drenched course at painstakingly slow pace in order not to crash. He finally lost 56 seconds, with only Schleck a worse overall performer.

Long-term, this represents a setback, not a major defeat, but it was far from being Wiggins' ideal start for the Tour. For Armstrong, though, Rotterdam's prologue went far better than he could have dared imagine.

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