Tuesday, July 15, 2003

'Scared' Lance avoids bad spill and keeps lead

The Associated Press

GAP, France - Lance Armstrong was rattled. He kept his lead in the Tour de France Monday and got rid of his closest rival, but he can do without these harrowing close calls.

Joseba Beloki, runner-up to the four-time champion last year and in second place entering the day, is finished with the Tour. He broke his right leg, wrist and elbow in a crash that nearly took out Armstrong, too.

"I was scared like never before," Armstrong said. "When you see something like that happening, the first thing you do is to say, 'OK, where am I going to go?' I couldn't make it to the right, I couldn't go over him, I could only go left . . . Then I found a little path there into the field and just continued on."

The cyclists were speeding down the day's last mountain, trying to catch leader Alexandre Vinokourov. Then Beloki braked, skidded on the slick and melting tarmac and hit the deck hard.

Armstrong was just behind and drove off the road into a field to avoid hitting the Spaniard. He recovered to finish fourth in the stage on Bastille Day.

The Texan bumped across the sun-baked grass to the bottom of the field, cutting off a hairpin bend. Then, he hopped off his bike to carry it onto the road, climbed back on and sped off in pursuit of the riders who had gotten ahead of him on the bend.

"You hate to see a guy who's out there, doing his best and a real threat for the race, go down like that," said Armstrong, who is trying to match Miguel Indurain's record of five straight Tour wins. "I was lucky that the field was there like that. It could have been full of crops, it could have been a drop-off."

Armstrong was not penalized for skipping the bend when he went through the field because he did not gain time on rivals and did not do so deliberately.

This Tour has been eventful for Armstrong. He had the stomach flu in the weeks before the race, was involved in a crash on the second day and struggled with a faulty brake Sunday on a punishing climb.

Still, he retained the overall lead he first took a day earlier. But he has yet to stamp his authority on this race.

Armstrong was in a group of 10 riders that finished 36 seconds back. Among them was Iban Mayo of Spain, who won Sunday's climb to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez. He is third overall, 62 seconds behind Armstrong.

Also in the group were 1997 champion Jan Ullrich of Team Bianchi, who is sixth overall, 2:10 behind Armstrong, and American Tyler Hamilton, who is riding with a fractured collarbone.

At a glance

Monday's stage: Bourg d'Oisans to Gap, a 114.4-mile mountain route featuring two climbs exceeding 6,600 feet.

Winner: Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, in 5 hours, 2 minutes.

How others fared: Four-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong placed fourth; Jan Ullrich, a Tour winner in 1997, finished fifth; Spain's Joseba Beloki, last year's runner-up, crashed and did not finish the race.

Yellow jersey: Armstrong retains the overall lead in a time of 40 hours, 15 minutes, 26 seconds.

Next stage: Gap to Marseille, a 136.1-mile, relatively flat route ending in the southern seaport city of Marseille.

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