Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Cobblestones lead to spills in Stage 3

TOUR DE FRANCEFrance's Jean-Patrick Nazon won the third stage. Robbie McEwen of Australia scored bonus points to secure the leader's much coveted yellow jersey


George Hincapie of team US Postal rides in front of teammate Lance Armstrong on a cobblestone road during the third stage of the 91st Tour de France. The 210km leg was run between Waterloo, Belgium, to Wasquehal, France, Tuesday.


Give Lance Armstrong credit for his predictive powers.

Before he and Tour de France rivals embarked on a bumpy, nail-biting stage Tuesday, Armstrong warned that two cobblestone patches on the course would likely mean spills and delays.

That's just what happened.

Spain's Iban Mayo, a top threat to the Texan's bid for a record sixth Tour win, was one of seven riders who crashed and lost precious minutes on the ride from Waterloo, Belgium, to Wasquehal.

On the eve of the 210km third stage, Armstrong had said the cobblestones -- last seen on a Tour course in 1985 -- could be disastrous.

"Some people's Tour will be finished," he had said. "I could be one of those people, and I'm not dumb enough to think that I couldn't be. And that would be a shame."

Jean-Patrick Nazon of France won the stage after a final mad dash, but Robbie McEwen of Australia scored key bonus points for his sprinting prowess that handed him the overall leader's yellow jersey.

Mayo's hopes of reaching the winner's podium on July 25 dwindled to next to nil as he dropped 3 minutes, 48 seconds to the 32-year-old Armstrong.

"Iban had the bad luck to fall and lose time," said Julian Gorospe, sporting director for his Euskadi Euskaltel team, trying to put a brave face on the outcome. "But we won't dwell on that."

Mayo can still make up time in later mountain stages that are his specialty. But four minutes is a big gap, and he risks losing yet more time to Armstrong in the team time trial on Wednesday.

Other Armstrong rivals still lurk, including 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich, American Tyler Hamilton, Italy's Ivan Basso and Spain's Roberto Heras.

Mayo's setback came as dozens of riders nervously jockeyed for front position before the first bone-jarring cobblestones, hoping to avoid crashes and force others to eat their dust.

Many riders reckon that crossing such dangerous patches at the head of the pack is the wisest strategy -- and Armstrong's US Postal Service teammates made sure he was at the front of the line.

"It's just a matter of fighting. You have no friends except your teammates," said US Postal veteran George Hincapie, his face caked with grime. "We wanted to get to the cobblestone section first, just like the rest of the 200 guys ... We did it."

The multi-rider pileup also brought down Credit Agricole's Thor Hushovd, who only a day earlier had become the first Norwegian ever to don the yellow jersey. The melee ended the Tour for Italian Marco Velo, who tumbled into a roadside ditch and broke a collarbone.

Overall, Armstrong maintained a 15-second lead over Ullrich, 16 seconds over Hamilton, 27 seconds over Basso and 35 seconds in front of Heras, a former US Postal teammate who now leads his own squad.

Wednesday's team time trial takes riders on a 64.5km jaunt from Cambrai to Arras. Teams advance in unison, rotating leadership. CSC, Phonak, T-Mobile and US Postal are the favorites.

Armstrong's sporting director says his team is ready.

"It's like a machine that always needs to run at the same speed," Johan Bruyneel said. "The machine is working well, it's well-oiled and he's very confident in the team."

She's dating the world's most famous cyclist and is happier than ever, but rocker Sheryl Crow admits she still has a bit to learn about his sport.

The singer is attending her first Tour de France since striking up a relationship with Lance Armstrong last year, and plans to be by his side through much of the race.

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