Strasbourg, France With the first Tour de France of the post-Lance Armstrong era rocked by one of the worst doping scandals in cycling's history, American riders may be in good position to take advantage of the depleted field.
On Saturday, George Hincapie lost by a split second to big Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd in the opening time trial of the sport's premier race. David Zabriskie placed third, and Floyd Landis was ninth, making the United States the only country with three racers in the top 10.
"This is the first year I'm going to try to see what I can do," said Hincapie, the only rider to race with Armstrong on his record seven straight Tour wins. "I know I've trained hard, I don't know how far I can go. But I'm ready, and I started the Tour well, and I just hope I can continue to improve."
The Tour was still reeling from the previous day, when 1997 winner Jan Ullrich and Tour of Italy champion Ivan Basso were among nine riders sent home for suspected doping. It was the biggest drug scandal to hit the sport in years, perhaps ever.
Hincapie, Landis and Levi Leipheimer, another American who was 36th in Saturday's race against the clock over 4.4 miles, find their chances of succeeding Armstrong enhanced now that the top four behind Armstrong from last year - Basso, Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo and Alexandre Vinokourov - are out.
Hincapie showed he can be a force in the high mountains that come later in the three-week race by winning a brutal stage in the Pyrenees last year. He was the first of Armstrong's many support riders over the years to win an individual stage.
The 33-year-old said he wanted to win Saturday's trial-trial loop through the eastern French city of Strasbourg. But Hushovd found the extra edge on the long straightaways and tight corners. He and Hincapie officially had the same time of 8 minutes, 17 seconds.
"Today was my first big objective, so I'm a little disappointed," Hincapie said.
Hushovd donned the leader's coveted yellow jersey that was last worn by Armstrong on the Champs-Elysees in Paris last year. But he isn't a contender for the overall title because he struggles to get his powerful frame over high mountain passes. Instead, his goal is to win sprint stages in the first week and defend the green jersey he won last year as the Tour's top sprinter.
Leipheimer could be the biggest American hope, despite his slow start Saturday. The Butte, Mont., native won the Dauphine Libere, a traditional Tour tuneup, in June. He was sixth at the last Tour.
"If I can ride the way I did in the Dauphine, I think I can win," he said. He said he had not trained "very hard" since then, so was not surprised to feel "a little sluggish" in the prologue time trial.
"It's OK. It's three weeks, and I planned it so that it goes well for three weeks, not just one day," he said.
Like others in the field, the 32-year-old Leipheimer is having to readjust to the reshaped field and identify new potential rivals. He cited three: Landis, Australian Cadel Evans, who placed 14th on Saturday, and Spain's Alejandro Valverde, who placed fifth and whom Armstrong last year said "could be the future of cycling."
"Anybody can pop up in the next three weeks and there can be a surprise," Leipheimer said.
Landis, 30, also can contend in climbs and time trials, although he lost a few seconds Saturday to a tire problem. He already has won the Tour of Georgia, the Tour of California and the Paris-Nice stage race this year. He finished ninth at the 2005 Tour.
Zabriskie, from Salt Lake City, said his CSC team was still reeling from the withdrawal of Basso, their leader who was aiming to become the first rider since 1998 to win the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in the same year.
"Everyone's still dealing with their feelings - it's a pretty big loss," he said. "Honestly, we haven't talked about the plan for the race, for the future."
Basso and the other riders were withdrawn after Spanish authorities confirmed to Tour organizers that they were suspected of links to an alleged doping ring revolving around a doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, who was arrested in Spain in May.