Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong plays it safe in first stage of Tour de France

AP , CHARLEROI, BELGIUM

Lance Armstrong cruised to a safe finish in Sunday's skittish first stage of the Tour de France by meticulously avoiding crashes that bruised up some rivals.

With winds high and roads slick from rain, the five-time champion kept to his cautious early game plan and settled for an honorable finish behind Estonian stage winner Jaan Kirsipuu.

Armstrong is pacing himself for the grueling three-week race, content to allow speedsters like Kirsipuu slug it out for glory with early stage wins.

The American will wait for the mountains and time trials to make his move toward a record sixth Tour win.

For Tour contenders, the first big challenge comes in Wednesday's team time trial, which Armstrong hopes will allow him to open up gaps on rivals.

While Kirsipuu, 34, wrested the honor at the line in Charleroi, Armstrong and 176 other riders all clocked the same time of four hours, 40 minutes and 29 seconds.

The Estonian, winning his fourth stage ever and first in two years, powered to the finish ahead of fellow sprinters Robbie McEwen of Australia and Norway's Thor Hushovd.

The stage gave Armstrong and others a chance to shake off first-day jitters and test out the field.

"He always dislikes the first couple of days," said Jogi Mueller, spokesman for Armstrong's US Postal Service team. The strategy for the first week is to stay near the front of the pack to avoid crashes and keep a close eye on breakaway riders, he said.

Armstrong rival Tyler Hamilton, who rode most of last year's Tour with a double-fractured collarbone, had a small crash that left him with "a little boo-boo," but he easily rejoined the race, coach Jacques Michaud said.

Armstrong took no chances, and wore a windbreaker against the rain for part of the 202.5km stage from Liege, also in Belgium.

The 32-year-old Texan is lying third overall but wants to wrest the leader's coveted yellow jersey before the race ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 25. That shirt currently rests with Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara.

The 23-year-old won the time trial prologue on Saturday in the third-fastest speed in the history of that event. Armstrong was second, two seconds slower.

Sunday's stage started with a series of moderate hill climbs but leveled out toward the end, allowing the speeding pack to swallow up a pair of riders that tried to make a late breakaway and stampede together for the line down streets lined with cheering crowds.

Bonus time awards granted to Hushovd for his sprinting allowed him to take second place behind Cancellara overall, with a four-second deficit. Armstrong is 10 seconds off the leader's pace.

Armstrong's top challenger, Jan Ullrich of Germany, remains within easy striking distance, 15 seconds behind Armstrong.

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