LUXEMBOURG — Lance Armstrong, the defending champion, could have opted to start Saturday's Tour de France prologue in the leader's yellow jersey. Like many athletes, however, he prefers clothing that's a little broken in.
Unlike most athletes, Armstrong has enough talent to win even when he doesn't mean to.
Armstrong rose up in the saddle on the last gradual grade, pumping hard but smoothly, and won the 4.3-mile time trial in 9 minutes 8 seconds, two seconds ahead of France's Laurent Jalabert, with an effort he said left him "cross-eyed."
"I don't know that it's right to start in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said. "That's last year. I prefer to look down and see a team jersey and say to myself, the yellow one is out there and you have to earn that."
In one of the Tour's quirks, it's not necessarily the best idea to win this preamble when you have designs on overall victory. Armstrong and his royal blue-clad U.S. Postal minions are already marked men. They will have to decide whether to try to keep the jersey or cede it to a more sprint-oriented team in the initial flat stages, conserving strength for the mountains.
The attacks from other teams will be immediate and furious.
"I'm 100% confident in our team, but I don't know that any team can defend the yellow jersey for three weeks," said Armstrong, who also won the prologue in 1999.
That victory, in Armstrong's first Tour after recovering from cancer, was a pleasant surprise. So was Saturday's, he said--especially after losing time trials to Tour contenders Santiago Botero and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano in tune-up races this spring.
Jalabert, last year's top climbing specialist, figuratively doffed his hat to the Texan.
"As in Formula One, you have to choose the best route and the best gear," Jalabert said of the all-out sprint. "I did fine, but I forgot about the blue rocket."
Intermittent rain stopped well before the top riders took their turns, giving the streets a chance to dry. The riders started one minute apart, wheeling through the oldest part of the city over cobblestones, past expensive shop windows and practically close enough to this financial center's ubiquitous banks to withdraw cash from the push-button machines.
One absentee, Armstrong's erstwhile chief rival Jan Ullrich, told reporters Saturday in his native Germany that illicit drugs were responsible for his positive test for amphetamines last week.
"I was very naive," said Ullrich, who said he popped two pills believed to be similar to the party drug Ecstasy because he was depressed about a recent knee surgery and a drunk-driving incident.
"I never thought about it as cheating, because I haven't raced in a long time....
"What I did was stupid, not cheating. I will not finish my career on this note."