The Texan placed an impressive fourth in the short opening time trial, shrugging off renewed doping allegations to dust several other likely podium contenders as well as edge rival Alberto Contador, the defending champion and prerace favorite.
Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, the world and Olympic time trial champion, collected a fourth Tour prologue win and second in a row, clocking 10 minutes even for the 5.5-mile ride on rain-dampened roads in Rotterdam.
Armstrong trailed 22 seconds back in fourth. Perhaps most impressively, the American bested Contador by 5 seconds.
The American’s solid performance was almost certain to brighten spirits within the RadioShack team on a day that started with new claims by former teammate Floyd Landis that the seven-time Tour champ was once involved in doping.
The 38-year-old sought to focus on the racing.
“In my heart, that was a surprise,” Armstrong said. “I wanted to have a decent day in the time trial, and I was not the best out there today.”
“But among the (general classification) rivals, I have to say it was the best one I’ve done since the comeback,” Armstrong said, referring to his Tour return last year after a 3-year hiatus.
Some potential Tour title contenders were already facing disappointment: Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, an Olympic gold medalist and strong time-trial rider who was fourth in last year’s Tour, was 77th overall — 56 seconds behind Cancellara.
Andy Schleck, who finished second in last year’s Tour — one rung above Armstrong on the podium — placed 112th, 1:09 back of his Saxo Bank teammate and race leader.
Armstrong came into the time trial predicting he wouldn’t win it, saying that he’s “lost it” in the discipline — one that he had dominated in his record run of Tour titles from 1999 to 2005.
But he rode aggressively Saturday, only slowing at one point to take a tight turn — a sign that above all he wanted to avoid a crash that could damage or derail his hopes for an eighth Tour victory.
“I gotta say I’m happy: Happy with the result, happy with the feelings, which is maybe more important than the result,” he said. “Everything from the start of the day through to the warm-up just felt solid.
“If you would have told me this morning: ’Hey, sign up for fifth (sic) and put time on your rivals,’ I would have signed with both hands.”
Before the stage, the Texan rejected as “baseless and already-discredited” claims by Landis that he was involved in doping when they rode together. Landis’ allegations, which followed similar comments he went public with in May, were published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal.
“Landis’ credibility is like a carton of sour milk: once you take the first sip, you don’t have to drink the rest to know it has all gone bad,” Armstrong said in a statement.
The cancer survivor also said he had “too much work to do” during the event to devote attention to “this predictable pre-Tour sensationalism.”
After the prologue, Armstrong declined to address the issue that dates back years. “No comment. It’s been 10 years. Ten years. No. We gave the reaction this morning.”
Also before the start, Cervelo TestTeam said rider Xavier Florencio was suspended from competing for using a substance that contained banned stimulant Ephedrine — fearing it could lead to a positive doping test.
Riders set off one by one down the starter’s ramp for the race against the clock. Contador went last — right after Cancellara and Armstrong.
They took a looping course over and back across the Meuse River that cuts through Europe’s largest port town, scaling three bridges including the distinctive Erasmus suspension bridge.
Fairly persistent rain left the roads shiny-wet, and bikes sizzled and spit as they cut through the water. Large crowds braved the wet weather under colorful ponchos along the route.
Contador, who is gunning for a third Tour victory, said he was happy with his prologue by gaining time on most of his major rivals — if not Armstrong.
The Spaniard acknowledged that he “failed to catch the rhythm that I like,” but added, “It’s better to lose a few seconds than to risk a fall.”
He played down his deficit to Armstrong as “minor” in the overall race.
The only other time trial this year is a 32-mile jaunt across southwestern France in Stage 19 — on the eve of the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 25.
But the layout also features a total of 23 mountain passes in the Alps and Pyrenees, which plays to Contador’s strength as a climber.
Cancellara will don the race leader’s yellow jersey for Sunday’s 138.9-mile first stage across wind-swept lowlands from Rotterdam to Brussels.
“That was a great opening for me and the team,” Cancellara said, referring to his Danish squad Saxo Bank. “It’s an amazing day. I’m really happy.”
Germany’s Tony Martin, who had led for most of the day, was second, 10 seconds back, and David Millar of Britain placed third — 20 seconds off the pace.
The victory was another vindication for Cancellara, who has been at the center of speculation that he benefited from a small motor hidden in his bike frame during the Paris-Roubaix race he won this year.
Cancellara has called the claims ridiculous, and they have not been proven true.
Video detailing the speculation has been a viral hit on the Internet, and partly to dampen the speculation, the International Cycling Union is scanning competitors’ bikes at this Tour to check for hidden motors.
“After they checked my bike, I said, ’You should also check the motor: Me!”’ Cancellara quipped.