Tour de France: Armstrong 'all over the place' on his return

Nervy American battles to 10th as Cancellara sets pace
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The Independent Online

Lance Armstrong's comeback in the Tour got off to a low-key but solid start yesterday when the American finished 10th in the opening 15.5 kilometre time trial here, won by the Swiss specialist Fabian Cancellara.

Bradley Wiggins provided the high point of the night for British fans when the Garmin-Slipstream time-trial specialist came close to scooping the first yellow jersey, and briefly held the leader's spot.

But the Olympic gold medallist was forced to settle for third after his time was beaten by both the 2004 and 2007 prologue winner Cancellara as well as the overwhelming favourite for the overall victory in this year's Tour, Spaniard Alberto Contador.

While Armstrong's performance was slightly below expectations, the Texan nonetheless had the satisfaction of seeing his Astana squad dominate the Tour's unusually challenging opening stage.

Apart from Contador finishing second, team-mates Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer clinched fourth and sixth respectively, giving Astana no less than four riders in the top 10.

Visibly nervous before the start of his first Tour de France since 2005, Armstrong had deliberately chosen to be among the earliest stage starters in order to avoid being slowed by possible thunderstorms.

But despite his precautions, the 37-year-old never looked comfortable on a highly technical, twisting rollercoaster of a course that first reared skywards for seven kilometres to the Côte de Beausoleil summit before plunging back downhill through a forest of skyscrapers to the Quai Albert I in central Monaco.

Diving into each of the succession of hairpin corners on the initial climb as if his life depended on it, the sight of Armstrong's mirthless smile and his jaw jutting from underneath a wraparound aerodynamic helmet brought back memories of the Texan's glory days when he won seven straight Tours.

But if the estimated 200,000 fans who poured into the tiny Principality were hoping Armstrong might take the opening time trial of cycling's blue riband event for a fourth time, they were to be disappointed.

He briefly clocked the best time both at the mid-way checkpoint and then at the finish line, but they were quickly knocked off the top of the provisional classification first by German Tony Martin and then by Leipheimer. Then when the other contenders finished, the Texan slid steadily out of the top end of the classification, with Olympic time-trial champion Cancellara claiming the Tour lead for the third time in his career.

"I was a little bit all over the place and nervous," Armstrong admitted later, "although that's logical after not racing properly since the Tour of Italy and so many years away from this race.

"It was a very tough course, constantly up and down, and I couldn't find the right rhythm." Armstrong also claimed that he had had no illusions about taking the Tour's opening stage time trial for a third successive time.

However, losing a relatively small time to all three of his Astana team-mates in such a difficult opening stage still leaves the question of the hierarchy in the Kazakh squad wide open.

The American's start may not have been the crushing performance that characterised his seven-year reign in yellow. But at the same time, he is far from being out of the running, and after three years away, that is surely impressive enough.