No winning return for Armstrong in opening time trial

MONACO: Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong made his return to the Tour de France on Saturday, but failed to make a winning start at the opening stage time trial held over 15.5km.

After an absence of four years from the race he won between 1999 and 2005, the 37-year-old American clocked a time of 20min 12.36sec for the race against the clock which many believe will be a good indicator of who can win the race.

It gave him the provisional lead, albeit briefly, with a 30sec advantage on Belgian Maxime Monfort, with most of the favourites for the stage, and perhaps overall, victory yet to start.

Armstrong's performance was thus hard to gauge although it soon became apparent the American icon would not be making a winning return to the race after 24-year-old German Tony Martin took the provisional lead beating Armstrong by 07secs.

Armstrong later said he was happy with his performance after such a long absence from the race, even if his Astana team do not grab the first yellow jersey of the race.

But the American admitted the demands of the hilly, technical course had left him struggling to find any real rhythm.

"It was difficult, difficult for everybody today," he said.

"It was very technical and hard to find a rhythm.

"I felt pretty good but I was a little bit all over the place."

Armstrong said, however, he had no illusions about winning the stage - a statement that could prove prophetical to those who believe this test is a good indicator of who will win the race in Paris on July 26.

"I didn't have any illusions (about winning the stage), which is logical given I've been four years away," he added, admitting that riding the Tour was an altogether difference experience from any other race.

"It's almost like a foreign environment."

Armstrong, who rides for the same Astana team as yellow jersey favourite Alberto Contador, started 18th from the field of 180 riders, giving the thousands of roadside fans an early glimpse of the action.

Swiss Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara and Contador are among a handful of riders being tipped for the stage victory, and the first yellow jersey of this year's race.

Armstrong added: "We'll see the best general classification riders and the worst.

"I'm happy. Even if we don't win the jersey today I'm having a good time. There are a lot of other things I could be doing right now."

The final racers will all race towards the end at one-and-a-half minute intervals - although weather experts have predicted that some rain may fall on the hilly, technical course.

Defending yellow jersey champion Carlos Sastre is last to start, at eight minutes past seven local time (1808 GMT).