Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Battered cyclists get their first day of rest

TOUR DE FRANCE After all the thrills and spills of last week, riders got some time off to recuperate and steel themselves for the brutal mountainous stages ahead

AP , QUIMPER, FRANCE

Overall leader Thomas Voeckler of France, right, and teammate and fellow countryman Anthony Charteau, center, take a ride on a horse-drawn cart prior to the eighth stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Lamballe and Quimper on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Now for some well-earned R&R -- Tour de France-style.

Battered and bruised both physically and mentally by a crash-filled first week, riders were getting their first day of rest yesterday -- a chance to treat wounds, sleep in and steel themselves for the first mountainous stages ahead.

"It's been a crazy first week. I don't ever remember doing one like that," said five-time champion Lance Armstrong, who's nervous that a crash could end his bid for a record sixth crown.

After yesterday's day off, the Tour swings for three days through the Massif Central, a mountainous agricultural plateau of central France that will offer a foretaste of more brutal climbs that lurk further south in the Pyrenees and then, in the final week, in the Alps.

Muscular sprinters like Norway's Thor Hushovd, who won Sunday's hilly but fast stage through Brittany in western France, will give way in the mountains to more nimble climbers and all-rounders like Armstrong.

"We'll start to see the start of the real race," Armstrong said on Sunday evening before boarding a flight that took riders south to the Massif Central. "There are a few days that are not so selective, but then we have the mountains and the start of the real Tour."

More than half of the 188 riders who started the Tour last Saturday have been involved in crashes in the nervous and mostly flat first week that took the Tour through Belgium, into northern France and, on Sunday, to the Brittany town of Quimper near the Atlantic coast.

A dog scampering into the pack of riders near the end of the 168km stage from Lamballe felled French rider Samuel Dumoulin, who trailed in nearly 11 minutes behind Hushovd's winning time of 3 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds.

"His elbow's swelling. I have to get some ice," said Dumoulin's team manager, Vincent Lavenu, cutting short a telephone interview to inquire about the rider's wounds.

Armstrong, who escaped serious injury in a crash on Friday, heads to the Massif Central with a 55-second lead over rival Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, and 36 seconds over the US' Tyler Hamilton, who is also sore from a spill.

The crashes are largely due to rain that has doused the race and slickened roads, early nerves and the high speeds of the first week, where stages have ended with mass sprints. Teams looking to shepherd their leaders toward the front of the pack, out of trouble, fueled jitters by boxing for position.

"Every time I do the Tour, we talk about it being the craziest one to date. But this year has definitely been tough with the weather and all of the crashes," said American Bobby Julich, on his seventh Tour. "Once we get into the mountains, it's really nice ... There's a lot less stress."

French champion Thomas Voec-kler may be able to hang on to the overall leader's yellow jersey into the Pyrenees before Armstrong and other top dogs look to take it from his 25-year-old shoulders.

He is among a string of young riders who have stolen the show from veterans in the first week.

Hushovd, 26, beat veteran German Erik Zabel, 34, into third place on Sunday. Kim Kirchen, a 26-year-old from Luxembourg, was second.

The stage victory, secured with a burst of speed on the final uphill sprint, was the Norwegian champion's second in four Tours. His first was in 2002.

"Today really was my day. I'm very happy," said the sprinter who also placed third in the first stage, second in stage two and wore the leader's yellow jersey for one day in his standout first week.

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