Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Armstrong content being backseat driver in Tour

Texan bides his time, waits for climbing stages

The Associated Press

SEDAN, France - For Lance Armstrong, finishing 54th Monday made for a good day - perfect, actually - in the Tour de France.

It may seem strange that the four-time champion is, for the moment at least, happy to hang back as he chases Miguel Indurain's record of five consecutive victories.

But experience has taught Armstrong there's little point in exhausting himself up front - and risk being caught in crashes - when there's 18 days of racing and many hard, long miles left.

For now, Armstrong and his formidable U.S. Postal Service team are happy to let other riders take the early stages that finish with fierce and sometimes dangerous sprints.

The Postals are setting their sights on crucial team time-trials Wednesday and the Alps, where Armstrong aims to start powering away from his rivals up lung-burning climbs.

Monday, Armstrong finished in a pack behind winner Baden Cooke of Australia in the second stage of the Tour. He was in 10th place overall.

"A team like us just hopes for the mountains to come as fast as they can and get out unscathed," Dan Osipow, the Postal Service team's general manager, said as the riders set out on the relatively flat 126.8-mile second stage of the Tour to Sedan, a town near the border with Belgium.

Cooke, a sprinter who last year finished 127th overall, won the stage in a fierce dash at the finish, beating French rider Jean-Patrick Nazon and Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu by a whisker.

The risks of the Tour's early days, when riders still have fresh legs and newcomers are adjusting to racing in the large pack of nearly 200 cyclists, were highlighted in the first stage Sunday.

Spain's Jose Enrique Gutierrez lost control of his bike on the final turn, causing a dramatic pileup that took out about 35 riders - Armstrong among them. Armstrong wasn't badly injured, but suggested Monday that the Tour think about leaving less experienced cyclists behind.

"The biggest problem is 200 fresh guys," Armstrong said. "Given the intensity these days, 150 guys is a lot safer than 200.

"Some of the guys have never done the Tour, they want to take risks, sort of like cowboys," he said.

Overall, Armstrong is just 11 seconds off current race leader Bradley McGee, who won the Tour's first event Saturday, a race against the clock through the streets of Paris.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and a key rival of Armstrong's, is fifth overall, just five seconds ahead of the Texan.

Armstrong's former teammate, U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, completed the second stage with a fractured collarbone suffered in Sunday's crash.

Hamilton initially said he would pull out of the race.

"I was aching all day, there was this really sharp pain. But if it was more than I could take, then I would not have continued," Hamilton said after finishing 100th out of the 196 riders. He was eighth overall.

The stage started at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, east of Paris. Cooke finished the route in 5 hours, 6 minutes and 33 seconds.

Tour de France glance

Second stage: La Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Sedan, a 126-mile route toward France's border with Belgium.

Winner: Baden Cooke of Australia, in 5 hours, 6 minutes, 33 seconds.

How others fared: Four-time champion Lance Armstrong finished 54th. America's Tyler Hamilton, riding with a fractured collarbone, placed 100th. Germany's Jan Ullrich, a Tour winner in 1997, was 21st.

Quote of the day: "Some of the guys have never done the Tour. They want to take risks, sort of like cowboys." - Lance Armstrong.

Next stage: 104 miles from Charleville-Mezieres, home of famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud, to Saint-Dizier, toward the east of France.

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