- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

DUNKIRK, France (AP) Lance Armstrong might own the yellow jersey right from the first day.

He begins his bid for a third straight Tour de France title today with a 5.1-mile individual time trial in the northeast port of Dunkirk.

Time trails are one of Armstrong's strengths, and the Texan who has made a remarkable comeback from cancer will be one of the most formidable contenders in today's prologue.

Last year he was second in the opening time trial, trailing Britain's David Millar by two seconds. He then captured his only stage victory of the race in the 36-mile time trial between Freiburg, Germany, and Mulhouse in eastern France.

Armstrong set a Tour record for time-trial stages longer than 15.5 miles and built a nearly unbeatable lead with two days left in the race.

After today, Armstrong will still have more than 2,100 miles ahead of him. The 20 stages of the Tour take the 189 riders clockwise around France, starting on the northern Opal Coast.

The route detours through Belgium before crossing through Alsace and into the French Alps. The race is airlifted to the Pyrenees mountains, close to the Spain border, then moves through the center of France. It ends July 29 with the traditional ride down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Armstrong's strongest rivals include 1997 champion Jan Ullrich, who has a history of weight problems but is considered in good shape this year. Other riders with a shot at an upset include Spain's Joseba Beloki, who was third last year, and France's Christophe Moreau.

"I disagree that I'm the overwhelming favorite," Armstrong said. "I think there are a lot of guys that are just as strong as me."

The Tour again is shadowed by drugs. Last month, the Giro d'Italia was subjected to a police raid of team hotels. More than 60 riders reportedly were placed under investigation as a result of the sweep.

The International Cycling Union carried out blood tests Thursday on all riders taking part in this year's Tour. None failed the tests, which check the blood's oxygen level.

A high-oxygen level indicates possible use of performance-enhancing substances. Three riders were barred from starting last year's Tour after failing the blood tests.

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