- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

PARIS — The cobblestones of Paris were a burden for Lance Armstrong. The mountains that await may prove more to his liking.

Against the majestic backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, Armstrong began his bid for a record-tying fifth straight Tour de France victory by finishing seventh in yesterday’s prologue time trial.

The Texan was seven seconds behind Australian winner Bradley McGee in the 4.03-mile individual race against the clock through tree-lined boulevards and past thousands of cheering fans.

“I didn’t feel great,” said Armstrong, who won last year’s prologue. “I started slow. It wasn’t very comfortable, and I was struggling with the pounding of the cobblestones. But the race will change.”

Afterward, a half-dozen riot police surrounded him to hold back spectators while he got into a car.

Armstrong came back from cancer to win the first of his Tour victories in 1999 and is trying to become only the second cyclist to capture five in a row. He still has thousands of miles left in the punishing three-week race in which to stamp his authority.

McGee, an Olympic bronze medalist, finished the last few hundred yards with a tire puncture and was a fraction of a second faster than Britain’s David Millar. Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia was third, two seconds off McGee’s pace. Armstrong raced last because he is the defending champion.

“It’s like being in another world. It feels great,” said McGee, wearing the yellow jersey awarded to the overall Tour leader. “The dream of dreams is to hold on to the jersey as long as possible.”

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who is considered a serious threat to Armstrong, was fourth, two seconds back. He is regaining his form after missing more than a year because of injuries and a drug ban.

Another potential rival, U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, finished sixth, one spot and one second ahead of Armstrong. Hamilton is a former teammate of Armstrong’s who now rides for the Danish CSC team.

Other likely challengers — Joseba Beloki of Spain and Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni of Italy — were eighth and 21st.

The 2,125-mile trek around France has 20 stages left, including grueling mountain climbs where Armstrong has previously left rivals in his wake.

This was the first time in 40 years the Tour has begun in Paris. The overall winner in 1963 was Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, the first to win five Tours. If Armstrong wins, he will join Spain’s Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win five consecutively.

Yesterday’s route crossed the Seine, wound its way up a hill to the Place du Trocadero and then snaked through streets lined with fans. Riders zipped past Place de la Concorde, where King Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793 during the French Revolution, before recrossing the Seine.

Then they cycled past the parliament building and finished at the foot of the Champ de Mars, a park in the Eiffel Tower’s shadow. The riders’ wheels rattled and jumped on the cobblestones.

McGee completed the course in 7 minutes, 26.16 seconds. Millar finished in 7:26.24 and may well have won had his chain not jumped out of gear in the next-to-last straightaway.

“This is incredible,” McGee said. “For the Tour de France, you have to control your nerves. I am very, very anxious. All day my heart was here,” he said, pointing to his head.

Today the riders embark on the first real stage, a trip heading east from Paris to Meaux.

The race starts from the same spot, an inn called Le Reveil Matin, where the first Tour began in 1903. The relatively flat 104-mile leg does not present significant difficulties.

Armstrong coach Chris Carmichael said the goal the first week is for his star rider to stay with his U.S. Postal Service teammates near the front of the 198-man field. That will reduce the chance of getting caught in a crash while he conserves energy for the later stages.

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