LOUDUN, France - Looking relaxed and sounding unruffled, saying that his form is good but needs some improvement, Lance Armstrong predicted a tough Tour de France. "It'll be a good fight," he said solemnly, then broke into a smile, as if he knew a secret.
Perhaps he does. Perhaps, though, it's not really a secret. "I like my own chances," he finally said. He squared his jaw and waited for a contradiction - a dare that was hard to accept.
Armstrong is no longer in the overall leader's yellow jersey that he wore for two weeks last summer. He finished second to David Millar of Cofidis as the 87th edition of the race began Saturday, and Millar retained the yellow jersey yesterday after finishing 17th in the 120-mile race from Futuroscope to Loudun. Tom Steels of Mapei won the second stage in 4 hours, 46 minutes, 8 seconds. Armstrong was 37th, and is second overall, trailing Millar by four seconds.
Yellow jersey or not, Armstrong, the leader of the United States Postal Service team, is wearing No. 1 on his back because of his victory in the Tour last year and he is, as the French sports newspaper l'Equipe anointed him Saturday, Le Boss.
His strength has been evident in races this spring and his motivation is, as always, sky high. He is riding, he says, not only "to prove that a cancer survivor can win this bike race, the hardest sporting event in the world," but also to gain the respect he says some riders begrudge him.
Why, he was asked, after his clear-cut triumph last year, do so many people say this is an open race and then list seven, eight and nine candidates for victory?
"I think that started with those guys who weren't here last year," Armstrong replied, naming Marco Pantani, the Italian who won the Tour in 1998, and Jan Ullrich, the German who won in 1997. "Pantani and Ullrich perhaps didn't respect the race last year."
Pantani missed last year's race after failing a drug test; Ullrich was injured.
"But that's all history, it doesn't matter," the 28-year-old Texan said. "We're all here now, everybody's here, and I think everybody will have the ambition to go to the finish. That's the way I prefer it."
Armstrong looks fit, perhaps a bit under his usual weight of 165 pounds.
"As the defending champion, I know I'm a marked man," he said, "but this Tour should be a little easier than last year's because I'm one more year away from cancer."
After diagnosis, surgery and three months of chemotherapy in 1996, Armstrong returned to the sport in 1998 and to the Tour in 1999.
"To sum it up, I'm a little less nervous than I was last year, I'm confident about my team and comfortable about my condition. Plus I have the experience of winning."
Second stage results at Loudun, France
(rider, country, team and time:)
1. Tom Steels, Belgium, Mapei, 4 hours, 46 minutes, 8 seconds.
2. Stuart O'Grady, Australia, Credit Agricole, same time.
3. Erik Zabel, Germany, Telekom, same time.
4. Romans Vainsteins, Latvia, Vini Caldirola, same time.
5. Marcel Wust, Germany, Festina, same time.
6. Dario Pieri, Italy, Saeco, same time.
7. Robbie McEwen, Australia, Farm Frites, same time.
8. Zoran Klemencic, Slovenia, Vini Caldirola, same time.
9. Francois Simon, France, Bonjour, same time.
10. Jans Koerts, Netherlands, Farm Frites, same time.
11. Markus Zberg, Switzerland, Rabobank, same time.
12. Christophe Mengin, France, La Francaise des Jeux, same time.
13. Jaan Kirsipuu, Estonia, AG2, same time.
14. Fabiano Fontanelli, Italy, Mercatone Uno, same time.
15. Tristan Hoffman, Netherlands, Memorycard. same time. Overall Standings (after two stages) 1. David Millar, Britain, Cofidis, 5 hours, 5 minutes, 9 seconds.
2. Lance Armstrong, U.S., 4 seconds behind.
3. Laurent Jalabert, France, Once, :15 behind.
4. Jan Ullrich, Germany, Telekom, :16.
5. David Canada, Spain, Once, :18.
6. Alex Zulle, Switzerland, Banesto, :22.
7. Vjatcheslav Ekimov, Russia, :23.
8. Simone Borgheresi, Italy, Mercatone, :29.
9. Tyler Hamilton, U.S., :35.
10. Abraham Olano, Spain, Once, :41.
11. Joseba Beloki, Spain, Festina, :42.
12. Jens Voigt, Germany, Credit Agricole, :46.
13, David Plaza, Spain, Festina, :46.
14. Gilles Maignan, France, AG2, :51.
15. Nicolas Jalabert, France, Once, :55.