Thu, Jul 10, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong gets ready to rumble

TOUR DE FRANCE The US Postal rider is hoping his team mates in the team time trials can boost his bid for a fifth crown before the pelaton heads to the hills

AP , SAINT-DIZIER, FRANCE

Lance Armstrong answers journalists' questions before the third stage of the 90th Tour de France between Charleville-Mezieres and Saint-Dizier on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Now Lance Armstrong gets serious.

His bid for a fifth straight Tour de France title began in earnest in yesterday's team time trials. By day's end, Armstrong hoped to be wearing the leader's yellow jersey.

That would put him in excellent position before cycling's showcase race heads into the arduous climbs up the Alps on Saturday.

Armstrong conserved his strength on Tuesday and finished 69th in the third stage, won by Italy's Alessandro Petacchi. Armstrong is 12th overall, 19 seconds behind leader France's Jean-Patrick Nazon.

On Wednesday, squads race separately against the clock over a 43-mile course. Each rider gets his team's time, meaning Armstrong's challengers -- or Armstrong himself -- could lose vital seconds or minutes if their squads perform badly.

Wednesday "is really the first decisive move of the race," said Dan Osipow, general manager of Armstrong's US Postal Service team.

"With a bad team time trial, you can lose a handful of minutes and where do you find those minutes again when the Alps come?" he said. "We want to gain time on all of our rivals."

Armstrong's squad races last because it leads the overall standings among the Tour's 22 teams. That will allow the riders to see how Armstrong's rivals did.

"It's a big advantage," Armstrong said.

The route from Joinville to Saint-Dizier starts with a significant climb. Officials from Armstrong's team scouted the route on Tuesday.

"The beginning's hard," Arm-strong said.

Last year, US Postal placed second, 16 seconds behind the Once team.

"We all want the yellow jersey," team spokesman Jogi Muller said. "It's within reach, we've got an incredibly strong team."

Armstrong is trying to match the record of Spain's Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tours from 1991-95.

He has played it safe so far, trying to avoid accidents that pose a constant risk in the first week when riders are fresh and sprinters try to make the most of relatively flat and fast stages.

On Tuesday, Petacchi sped to the finish in a sprint marked by another crash. It was his second stage win in three days.

Three of Armstrong's teammates, whose job is to shield him from bumping in the main pack, finished grouped around the star rider.

"The team did a great job in protecting Lance," Muller said. "They're still nervous, there are still crashes, still lucky not be involved."

Petacchi beat Latvia's Romans Vainsteins and Spain's Oscar Freire in the third of the three-week Tour's 20 stages. Petacchi also won the first stage on Sunday, which was marked by a crash involving about 35 riders. Armstrong was among them but was not seriously hurt.

"I had a great sprint," said Petacchi, of the Italian Fassa Bortolo team. "I'm starting to get into form."

Rene Haselbacher of Austria crashed in the jostling of the final sprint. Doctors treated him by the side of the road and he finished 193rd of 196 riders.

Petacchi was timed on a hot, sunny day in 3 hours, 27 minutes, 39 seconds, averaging 29 mph.

Nazon took the overall lead by picking up time bonuses in sprint stages along the 104-mile route. He finished in 14th place, in the same time as the winner, to become the first Frenchman since Francois Simon in 2001 to wear the yellow jersey.

"People will remember that I'm the first French rider in a yellow jersey at this centennial," said Nazon, of the French Jean Delatour team.

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