-- Dave Zabriskie was 17 years old when his mother drove him to a junior race in Colorado named after cycling icon Lance Armstrong. Zabriskie won that day, but never expected to have a chance to compete against Armstrong, much less best him on a given day.
Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France six times, but never expected to have a chance to break the back of one of his most durable rivals on the first day of the race.
The two American riders made the exceptional seem routine in the dramatic Tour-opening time trial Saturday, owning it from A to Z.
Under overcast skies, with a slightly favorable tailwind, Zabriskie, 26, of Salt Lake City, set a Tour speed record to win the stage. He has now won stages in three consecutive Grand Tours, the three-week races that are the most prestigious in cycling.
Armstrong passed Germany's Jan Ullrich about two miles from the finish line of the 11.8-mile course and came in just two seconds short of Zabriskie's victorious time of 20 minutes 51 seconds.
The Texan was racing something aside from the digital timer: speculation that he wasn't totally prepared to defend his title.
"I was hungry today, I really was," Armstrong said. "I'm not here to ride a retirement race. I wanted to show the world I'm committed to this race. I think today sort of proved that."
Four Americans finished in the top 10 as Armstrong's Discovery Channel teammate George Hincapie placed fourth, 57 seconds back, and Phonak team leader Floyd Landis came in sixth, 1:02 behind.
The win marked the latest chapter in Zabriskie's comeback from serious crashes that began the 2003 and 2004 seasons, setbacks that he softly opined "might be the reason you didn't hear much about me" previously.
His face still bears the scars from the day in March 2004, when he skidded on a downhill and fell at high speed on coarse gravel at the Redlands Classic race in California. He also suffered a concussion and part of his scalp remains numb. The year before, he was hit by a sport-utility vehicle while training in Utah and broke his leg and arm.
Zabriskie, in his first year with the Danish CSC team, called the win "an amazing accomplishment for me," but it wasn't completely unanticipated. He finished fifth in the world championship time trial last year.
"It's a matter of concentration and being able to go hard by yourself," he said.
His teammate, Bobby Julich, said Zabriskie is the answer to the oft-posed question of what will happen to American cycling in the post-Armstrong era.
"As far as I can see, Dave's it," Julich said. "No one else has impressed me on the European scene or come close to winning the stages Dave has won. Right now he is the future of American cycling."
Aside from winning a stage, Zabriskie, known in the peloton for his playful and occasionally wacky sense of humor, conducted in-race interviews with fellow riders in which he ad-libbed questions such as "Do you like 'Star Wars'?" or "Do you consider yourself a superhero?" and posted the answers on his personal Web site.
Zabriskie began his Grand Tour slam last September when he won a breakaway road stage in the Tour of Spain while still riding for Armstrong's U.S. Postal team.
"Those years were good for me," he said. "They were developmental years. They gave me a start, they gave me experience. I chose something new this year. It's working out for me."
The 189 riders started Saturday's time trial a minute apart. Under those conditions, it's not uncommon for some to pass others along the way. But no one would have predicted that Ullrich, who started second-to-last, would be overtaken in an event that is one of his strengths.
Once Armstrong had Ullrich in sight, the champion's adrenaline and cadence picked up. "When you have that, you know you're not catching your local training partner," he said.
Yet Armstrong added that he wouldn't "read too much" into Ullrich's performance, given the fact that that German crashed head-first through the back windshield of a team car Friday in a training mishap.
Ullrich finished 1:08 behind Zabriskie and was "demoralized," said T-Mobile team spokesman Luuc Eisenga said.
"I really didn't feel that bad," Ullrich said in comments relayed by Eisenga. "But to be passed by Lance is not a good feeling. I'm happy the Tour is just starting. There are still three weeks, and for sure, I'll battle."
Other would-be contenders also had discouraging days, most notably Basque climbing specialist Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who finished 3:15 off Zabriskie's pace.
Zabriskie said he could hear his team director, Bjarne Riis, urging him on the radio to try to catch the police motorcycle ahead of him. He didn't manage that impossible task, but he did snare a piece of history.
His average speed of 33.96 mph broke the previous standard for a Tour stage: 33.87 mph set in 1989, when Greg LeMond came back on the final day of the race to defeat France's Laurent Fignon by eight seconds overall in the closest Tour finish in history.