ARRAS, France (AP) - Lance Armstrong took the overall lead Wednesday for the first time at this year's Tour de France after one of the fastest time
trials in race history.
His U.S. Postal Service squad dominated the rain-soaked event, giving the Texan the yellow jersey in his bid for a record sixth-straight title in
cycling's showcase race.
"It really was a special day for the team,"
Armstrong said. "The team was incredible. The rhythm was perfect. It's incredible."
He smiled broadly as he crossed the line, riding a special aerodynamic bike and wearing an aerodynamic helmet and suit. Armstrong holds a 36-second
lead over key rival Tyler Hamilton, a fellow American and former teammate.
Jan Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up and second again to Armstrong last year, finished fourth and is 55 seconds off the champion's overall time.
Other challengers were also left trailing: Italy's Ivan Basso is 1 minute, 17 seconds behind Armstrong overall, and Spain's Roberto Heras is 1 minute,
45 seconds back.
Armstrong said his team started slowly but picked up speed.
"That's the sign of a great team,"
he said. "We fought hard."
The blue-clad Postal squad celebrated with hugs at the finish line. Armstrong raised his arms as he accepted the yellow jersey that in the past five
years he has come to call his own. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, entered the race as Armstrong's most feared rival. His T-Mobile squad was more than
a minute behind.
New rules designed to limit the advantage that top teams gain in the event protected Ullrich to some extent. In all, the German lost 40 seconds to
Armstrong's team still a severe setback. Despite rain that soaked the 40-mile course from Cambrai to Arras, Armstrong's team still averaged more than
32 mph -- the third fastest time in the history of the event.
Armstrong will still be looking to the later mountain stages and individual time trials to put away his rivals for good. But the advantage gained in
the team event was a major step toward yet another title.
Armstrong and five teammates are among the top seven riders in the overall standings a clear sign of strength. George Hincapie is No. 2, 10 seconds
behind. He is followed by No. 3 Floyd Landis, No. 4. Jose Azevedo, No. 5. Jose Luis Rubiera and No. 7 Viatceslav Ekimov.
The Postal squad had the advantage of starting last of the 21 teams. It also benefited from a stop in the rain that had doused the course, turning the
roads slick and causing several teams problems. There were several crashes.
The Postal team worked right from the Tour's start the time trial Saturday to position itself as the squad to start last. That enabled the team to see
how others fared on the route and judge the pace.
"It's details that can win the Tour de France,"
said Dirk Demol, an assistant sports manager for the team.
Armstrong has said he was not aiming to keep the yellow jersey in the flat stages that come in the days following the time trial. Those stages favor
strong sprinters. His aim is to be wearing it on the day that counts at the finish in Paris on July 25.
"I suspect we'll be willing to give the jersey to someone else,"