ARRAS, France - Lance Armstrong took the overall lead Wednesday for the first time at this year’s Tour de France after one of the fastest time trials in race history.
His U.S. Postal Service squad dominated the rain-soaked event, giving the Texan the yellow jersey in his bid for a record sixthstraight title in cycling’s showcase race.
‘‘It really was a special day for the team,’’ Armstrong said. ‘‘The team was incredible. The rhythm was perfect. It’s incredible.’’
He smiled broadly as he crossed the line, riding a special aerodynamic bike and wearing an aerodynamic helmet and suit.
Armstrong holds a 36-second lead over key rival Tyler Hamilton, a fellow American and former teammate.
Jan Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up and second again to Armstrong last year, finished fourth and is 55 seconds off the champion’s overall time.
Other challengers were also left trailing: Italy’s Ivan Basso is 1 minute, 17 seconds behind Armstrong overall, and Spain’s Roberto Heras is 1 minute, 45 seconds back.
Armstrong said his team started slowly but picked up speed.
‘‘That’s the sign of a great team,’’ he said. ‘‘We fought hard.’’
The blue-clad Postal squad celebrated with hugs at the finish line. Armstrong raised his arms as he accepted the yellow jersey that in the past five years he has come to call his own.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, entered the race as Armstrong’s most feared rival. His T-Mobile squad was more than a minute behind.
New rules designed to limit the advantage that top teams gain in the event protected Ullrich to some extent. In all, the German lost 40 seconds to Armstrong’s team — still a severe setback.
Despite rain that soaked the 40-mile course from Cambrai to Arras, Armstrong’s team still averaged more than 32 mph — the third-fastest time in the history of the event.
Armstrong will still be looking to the later mountain stages and individual time trials to put away his rivals for good. But the advantage gained in the team event was a major step toward yet another title.
Armstrong and five teammates are among the top seven riders in the overall standings — a clear sign of strength. George Hincapie is No. 2, 10 seconds behind. He is followed by No. 3 Floyd Landis, No. 4. Jose Azevedo, No. 5. Jose Luis Rubiera and No. 7 Viatceslav Ekimov.
Armstrong has said he was not aiming to keep the yellow jersey in the flat stages that come in the days following the time trial. Those stages favor strong sprinters.
His aim is to be wearing it on the day that counts — at the finish in Paris on July 25.
Tour de France Stage: A 40-mile team time trial from Cambrai to Arras, France.
Winner: U.S. Postal Service. How others fared: Germany’s Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile Team finished fourth, 1 minute, 19 seconds behind; American Tyler Hamilton’s Phonak Hearing Systems finished second, 1:07 behind.
Yellow jersey: Armstrong takes the yellow jersey for the first time in this year’s Tour.
Next stage: A 124.59-mile stretch from Amiens to Chartres.