LIEGE, BELGIUM — LIEGE, Belgium - The first few miles of the Tour de France were dicey enough, requiring tight turns on narrow city streets. Then came wind gusts strong enough to alter a rider's trajectory, plus the occasional sprinkle to make the road surface slick.
It was a day for gamblers who know what they're doing, and one of the great risk-takers in sports played a better hand than almost anyone.
Lance Armstrong opened his bid for a record sixth Tour de France victory with a second-place finish in yesterday's 3.8-mile prologue, two seconds behind Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara.
Armstrong said his short but sweet day of racing should help quell the doubts - including his own - raised by a subpar performance in his last time trial, the grueling climb up Mont Ventoux in the early June Dauphini Libiri race. Two of his chief rivals, Phonak team leader Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo of Spain's Euskaltel team, beat him by significant margins that day.
"For all the people who said, 'I don't know about Lance Armstrong,' you know, I was also one of those people," an elated Armstrong said as reporters and fans thronged around him.
"I had serious doubts the night of Mont Ventoux. ... I was also at home thinking, 'What happened?' So I don't blame anyone for that."
U.S. Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel said he did not share those doubts.
"Today, Lance was very motivated and he wanted to show everybody that what [they] were saying wasn't really the truth," Bruyneel said. "Three weeks is a long path, but I'm still happy with today's results. ... For his morale, it's very good he did this performance."
Two other U.S. riders, Armstrong teammate George Hincapie and CSC's Bobby Julich, finished in the top 10. Germany's Jan Ullrich was 16th, 17 seconds back.
That margin isn't significant at the start of a three-week race, and Armstrong knows better than to underestimate the man who came within a minute of beating him last year and looks as trim and prepared as ever.
"Jan will be super, trust me," Armstrong said.
"It's disappointing to lose the maillot jaune [yellow jersey] by a couple seconds, but that's the way it goes. The more important thing is, how did you feel, and I was very comfortable."
Disaster befell one Tour rider before the race. Australia's Matthew White barreled into a spectator while warming up on the prologue course yesterday morning, crashed and broke his collarbone.
White's Cofidis team, already competing under the shadow of a drug scandal that cost star David Millar his slot on the Tour roster, made an emergency call to the rider with the best chance of making the afternoon start - Belgian Peter Farazijn.
Farazijn, 35, who was eating lunch when he was asked to slide down the fire pole, received a police escort to Liege. He performed admirably under the circumstances, finishing 185th of 188 riders, 1 minute 1 second behind Cancellara.
Armstrong is likely to drop in the overall standings over the next three days. Today and tomorrow are sprint stages, and Tuesday's course, which crosses the border into France, includes portions of the jarring, hazardous cobblestone stretches that gave the Paris-Roubaix race its nickname, "Hell of the North."
U.S. Postal's goal will be to keep its leader safe and sheltered until Wednesday's team time trial, in which Armstrong and his minions will be among the favorites.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Tour at a glance
Yesterday: A 3.8-mile individual time trial, where riders raced against the clock, in Liege, Belgium.
Winner: Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, in 6 minutes, 50 seconds.
How others fared: Lance Armstrong placed second, two seconds behind. Jan Ullrich was 16th, 17 seconds behind.
Yellow jersey: Cancellara.
Today's stage: 125.8 miles from Liege to Charleroi, Belgium.