Sat, Jul 12, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Relieved Armstrong stays out of trouble

TOUR DE FRANCE The US Postal rider celebrated his teams winning ride in the critical team time trial with an uneventful cruise from Troyes to Nevers

AP , NEVERS, FRANCE

Lance Armstrong leads the pack of riders during the fifth stage of the Tour de France from Troyes to Nevers on Thursday. US Postal team rider Victor Hugo Pena of Colombia retains the leader's yellow jersey.

PHOTO: REUTERS

No news was good news for the US Postal Service team.

No accidents, no drama, no effort wasted -- and crucially, team leader Lance Armstrong was looking fresh, with the menacing mountains looming.

"Fortunately there is nothing to report on a day like this," US Postal spokesman Jogi Muller said. "The team took care of themselves, avoided crashes. It was close to what we had hoped for."

The fifth stage of the centennial Tour de France featured a relatively docile 196.5km route from Troyes to Nevers on Thursday. It was a far cry from the previous day's team time trial -- which was all about setting the record straight.

US Postal won its first ever Tour team time trial, sparking mass celebrations in the camp. The smiles were still on the riders' faces before they raced on Thursday -- but the aim was more to shield Armstrong from danger than to go flat out for another victory.

Mission accomplished.

Armstrong, who seeks to tie Spain's Miguel Indurain as the only man to win cycling's premier event five straight times, crossed the line in 53rd place.

As the Texan dismounted his bike, he looked composed and barely out of breath, before speeding off to his hotel in a team car. The sweat on his brow was more to do with the sweltering heat, than exertion.

"Lance is in good spirits," Muller added. "But we try to be very cautious and not to get overexcited."

Italy's sprint king, Alessandro Petacchi, clinched the stage victory -- his third win in five stages -- in 4 hours, 9 minutes, 47 seconds.

He raced at an average speed of 47km under scorching hot skies, as temperatures reached 32 <> C.

"A sprint is a question of centimeters ... you need just a little problem for it to go badly," he said. "But things are going positively."

Petacchi edged Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu and Australia's Baden Cooke with an astounding burst of acceleration in the last 200m.

Armstrong cruised over the line with teammates George Hincapie and Pavel Padrnos.

Hincapie said the team's focus is on preparing Armstrong for today's opening mountain stage -- a 230.5km route from Lyon to Morzine-Avoriaz.

"Lance is one of the best climbers in the world," Hincapie said. "Our main strategy is to keep Lance out of trouble, and let him do the least work possible."

The Alps: Unforgiving conqueror of the frail, a challenge to relish for the likes of Armstrong.

Saturday's trek to the ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz is the first of three days of alpine ascents. The riders face two mammoth climbs in the last 20km of the stage.

The Col de la Ramaz, which peaks at 1,619m, is followed by a 1,181m grind on the Cote des Gets.

Cooke, relaxing after his third-placed finish, explained what riders go through in a typical mountain climb.

"When the field is packed at the start of the race it's really hard. You go through a lot of pain trying to keep up," he said. "Once the pack splits, it's not quite so bad because it's a lot slower."

For a sprint specialist like Cooke, the mountains are even harder than for someone sleek like Armstrong.

"As a sprinter you're carrying an extra 5kg of muscle. It gets unbearable at times," he said. "You just have to put up with it."

Tomorrow's eighth stage, a 219km haul from Sallanches to L'Alpe d'Huez, is equally daunting.

What makes the mythical stage so notorious is that it finishes with a morale-shattering climb.

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