Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Armstrong crashes during stage 1

AP , MEAUX, FRANCE

US Lance Armstrong, left, rides with his teammates during the first stage of theTour de France, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AFP

A little stirred but not shaken, Lance Armstrong emerged from the wreckage of a crash at the Tour de France, his hopes of a record-tying fifth win still intact.

The 31-year-old Texan is eighth in the overall standings, with 19 stages left to make his mark. With a crucial team time-trial looming and the mountain stages he loves and others so loathe lying in wait, Armstrong remains in good shape.

"We'll just try to avoid any problems, control the race from the back seat and wait for the team time trials," Armstrong said ahead of Sunday's 168km first stage from Montgeron to Meaux.

Those plans could well have crumbled when around 35 riders fell near the finish line -- Armstrong among them. However, he emerged from the pile-up relatively unscathed to finish the stage in 107th spot.

Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, who was just ahead of the chasing pack when the crash happened, won in 3 hours, 44 minutes and 33 seconds.

Despite his minor cuts and bruises, Armstrong is already thinking ahead to Wednesday's time trial -- a 69km sprint from Joinville to Saint-Dizier -- where teams dash off at five minute intervals from each other.

"It's a critical day. That day already starts to shape the race," Armstrong said. Last year, his US Postal Service team finished in second place, 16 seconds behind the winning Once team.

A good showing in the time-trial will set Armstrong up nicely for the grueling mountain stages that follow -- where he is renowned for decimating opponents with his relentless climbing ability.

"He will shine in the mountains," said Jaan Kirsipuu, an Estonian riding for the AG2R Prevoyance team. "Only Armstrong can keep it up for three, four hill climbs in a row."

From July 12-14, the Tour features three mountain stages, with some climbs topping 2,500m. They include the infamous Col du Galibier, which peaks at a whopping 2,645m.

"That's where Lance becomes the chief. As soon as he gets up there it's difficult to keep up with him," Swiss rider Sven Montgomery said, shaking his head in awe.

If luck had gone against him, Armstrong's race might have been over Sunday.

Armstrong, who is seeking to tie Spaniard Miguel Indurain's record five straight wins (1991-1995), was a split-second behind the front-runners when Spain's Jose Enrique Gutierrez fell, causing a domino effect in the ensuing pack.

Thousands of fans in the town of Meaux looked on as the reigning champion was sucked into the carnage.

Armstrong smacked into riders who'd already hit the deck, was launched off his bike and then ridden into by those behind him. Quick thinking saw him grab a bike off US Postal teammate Jose Luis Rubiera and ride the last few hundred meters to the finish.

He cut a calm figure amid the panic, cycling toward the team bus as if nothing had happened.

"I don't know who else was involved, but that was one hell of a crash," Armstrong said. "We all just fell over and got piled on top of.

"It kind of makes for a hard day, but it's OK."

US rider Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong's main rivals and his former teammate, fractured a collarbone in the pile-up. He and four other riders were taken to a hospital for X-rays, Tour doctors said.

Hamilton said he would decide Monday whether he's able to continue the Tour. The winner, Petacchi, held off Robbie McEwen of Australia to the finish line.

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