POITIERS, FRANCE, JUNE 30 -- Defending champion Greg LeMond shook off a winter full of distractions and a spring full of questions with an impressive opening performance today at the Tour de France.

LeMond finished a driving second in the four-mile prologue, four seconds behind French sprint specialist Thierry Marie.

"There were some questions whether I would come back," LeMond said. "But I've been confident for two weeks."

In four times in the Tour, he has won twice, taken second and third.

Today, Marie won the opening sprint around the high-tech theme park called Futuroscope in 7 minutes 49 seconds. But LeMond, rigged up with special handlebars, was right behind.

Third in the prologue went to Mexico's Raul Alcala in the same time as LeMond. Another six seconds back was France's Francis Moreau.

LeMond also gained valuable seconds on his chief competitors. Stephen Roche, the 1987 winner, was 14 seconds behind LeMond in 10th. France's Laurent Fignon, who won in 1983 and '84 and last year lost to LeMond by eight seconds in a thrilling final time trial, was 15th, 15 seconds behind. The 1988 winner, Spain's Pedro Delgado, was 26th, 20 seconds behind.

The main competitors used special triathlon handlebars that force a more aerodynamic position. But LeMond had an improved model, which looks like an upside-down Y, developed by a former ski coach to simulate the downhill tuck position.

"I am extremely pleased with the time today," LeMond said. "I was hoping for the top three and it's my best performance in a Tour de France prologue." After publicity demands and a virus cost him valuable training time over the winter, he had to rush to get into shape. "There is a point I have to go past from bad to good. Sometimes it takes longer than you think. But now I feel good."

He has a week of relatively flat racing before two days in the Alps, then more flatland along the southern coast. That's followed by two days in the Pyrenees, heading to a time trial on the next-to-last stage of the 2,112-mile journey around France.