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Can Lance get better?

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GRENOBLE, France — In case Lance Armstrong's rivals were worried by his performance in the Alps, the Texan would like to give them some reassurance: The domination can't last.

"You don't get better every year," said Armstrong, who is bidding for his third Tour de France title. "When you get to a certain age — I don't know if it's 30 or 31 — you stop improving."

But his competitors shouldn't rejoice just yet.

"I still believe that there's another level of Lance Armstrong," the 29-year-old U.S. Postal Service rider said.

On Wednesday, Armstrong blew away the field for the second day in a row in a grueling mountain time trial from Grenoble to Chamrousse. He was a minute faster than his biggest rival, Jan Ullrich, whose own performance — stunning on any other day — paled in comparison.

The previous day, Armstrong conquered one of the toughest climbs in cycling, surging past an exhausted Ullrich at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez and sprinting to the top.

Those two stages have Armstrong looking unbeatable and on course for a third straight title.

For the two-time champion, it was only to be expected.

"Every year, as I get older, and I think that perhaps my career is coming to an end, I work harder," he said. "The easiest way to judge that is by the training camps. I know that we have attacked those camps harder and harder every year."

Thrown in with all the hard work are a couple of new training techniques.

"I implemented a lot of stretching, a lot of abdominal work," Armstrong said. "The stretching helps, especially. Up to this tour, I've been doing about an hour a day."

Taking the start fourth from last in Wednesday's time trial, the U.S. Postal rider pedaled at a tempo that made the 5,019-foot climb look effortless.

Some 2.5 miles from the finish, he was 42 seconds faster than Ullrich's. In the final uphill stretch, he extended the margin by another 18 seconds, clocking a time of 1 hour, 7 minutes and 27 seconds.

Ullrich was 35 seconds faster than the previous leader, Joseba Beloki, but the exploit was dwarfed by Armstrong's performance.

Now, the American is looking to the next three mountain stages in the Pyrenees to make a bid for the overall race lead. He is third in the standings, but the two riders ahead of him are expected to lose ground in the coming days.

"The stages in the Pyrenees are difficult, but they're not long," Armstrong said. "We're getting closer and closer to the yellow jersey."