SAINT-NAZAIRE, France — Frenchman Laurent Jalabert savored wearing the leader's yellow jersey for the first time in five years, sounding a warning to defending champion Lance Armstrong.
"It's been a good year for the French," Jalabert said after his Once team won Tuesday's team time trial. "Mary Pierce won the French Open, France won Euro 2000. Why not think about a Frenchman winning the tour?"
Germany's Jan Ullrich, Italian Marco Pantani and Switzerland's Alex Zulle are widely considered the most likely threats to Armstrong's title.
But so far, only Ullrich has managed to stay within sight of the American, who was third in the overall standings. Jalabert, whose career has been resurrected this year, currently stands 24 seconds ahead of Armstrong after Tuesday's victory.
It could have been more.
Initially, Jalabert earned a 44-second cushion over the American. But race officials later deducted 20 seconds off each of his Once team's riders after its manager, Manolo Saiz, was judged to have given them an unfair advantage by purposefully driving alongside them to protect them from an energy-sapping headwind.
But Jalabert was happy just to be in front.
"We've worked hard for this moment and we will now try our hardest to hold onto the jersey," he said.
The 31-year-old Frenchman's team finished the 43-mile race from Nantes to the Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire in 1 hour, 25 minutes and 36 seconds.
Armstrong's U.S. Postal team was second. Ullrich's Deutsche Telekom was third.
It was the first time since Laurent Desbiens in 1998 that a Frenchman has won the yellow jersey.
"This stage was very important to us," Jalabert said. "We were meticulous down to the last detail. If you start a stage like this full of fear, it's difficult to get anywhere."
Many thought Jalabert's career was over.
The Frenchman pulled out of the 1998 race at the height of a doping scandal to protest how police were searching through the cyclists' hotels for banned substances.