Armstrong falls back
On the cobblestones in Tuesday’s third stage, on which he had been expected to excel, the seven-time champ instead popped a tire, lost time changing it, and fell back of his main rivals.
The 132-mile ride from Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut in France was the most dreaded stage of Week One—with seven sections of bone-jarring cobblestones that threatened injury, bike damage or lost time for title contenders.
Thor Hushovd of Norway, leading a six-man group, won the stage in a final sprint. Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider who won the prologue, was right behind—and recovered the leader’s yellow jersey he had ceded Monday to Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel.
For Armstrong, the bigger threats are riders such as defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain, 2009 runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia.
They all leapfrogged the 38-year-old Texan. They will be tough to overcome when the next big challenges await in the Alps in Week Two and a punishing four-day run in the Pyrenees in Week Three.
“Our chances took a knock today,” Armstrong said. “I’m not going home. We’ll stay in the race and keep trying.”
Astana team leader Contador avoided disaster, and rode the last 18 miles with the brake jammed against his rear wheel.
“I knew that if I changed the bike would be much worse and I preferred to continue with the wheel braking,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up, but hey, we saved the day.”
Schleck was fifth in the stage, clocking the same time as Hushovd: 4 hours, 49 minutes, 38 seconds. In the splintered pack, Contador was 13th, 1 minute, 13 seconds back. Armstrong placed 32nd—2:08 behind.
Overall, Cancellara leads Geraint Thomas by 23 seconds, and two-time Tour runner-up Evans is third: 39 seconds back. Contador is ninth, 1:40 back, Schleck is sixth, 1:19 back and Armstrong sank to 18th, 2:30 back, after entering the day in fifth overall.
The cobblestones stage, the first at the Tour since 2004, followed two straight stages marred by crashes on slick roads that caught up Contador, Schleck and Armstrong.
Organizers took a gamble by running the riders over the treacherous, roughhewn stones, hoping to inject drama to the race. The move appeared to be vindicated.
“I’m not sure I’m a fan of the cobblestones in the Tour de France,” said Bjarne Riis, the Saxo Bank team manager, “but it was a spectacular race.
Armstrong, who has dealt with cancer, will have to prove that at 38, he’s still got some fight in him if he wants to win.
Armstrong began the stage ahead of his general classification rivals. Now, he trails them: Contador is 50 seconds ahead, Evans is nearly 2 minutes ahead. Britain’s Bradley Wiggins has 41 seconds on Armstrong.
They’re likely to pounce if Armstrong tries to get in the front now. It’s a far cry from his heyday, when he methodically worked to ensure his rivals were eating his dust from the outset.
“Bad luck,” Armstrong said of his mishap.