In fifth, Lance faces early test
VALDOBBIADENE, Italy -- Lance Armstrong moved up to fifth place in the Giro d'Italia. His first real test comes with Tuesday's uphill finish, and the seven-time Tour de France winner isn't quite sure what to expect.
Riding the Giro for the first time, Armstrong has never seen the nearly 8.5-mile climb to San Martino di Castrozza, but he asked top favorite Ivan Basso about it.
"[Basso] expects 10 to 20 guys to be together, then the next day is steeper," Armstrong said. "Tomorrow's not that steep. If, like Ivan said, there are close to 20 guys, I would think I might be there. Down to five or six guys, I wouldn't be there right now."
Armstrong avoided a crash in the final miles of Monday's third stage that ended with Alessandro Petacchi of Italy taking the overall lead from Britain's Mark Cavendish. Armstrong finished in the main pack in 50th place, advancing from 10th in the overall standings. The Texan said he studied Google Earth before the stage to check the finish.
"I was trying to figure out that last corner," he said.
Petacchi beat Tyler Farrar of the United States and Francesco Gavazzi of Italy in a sprint finish in the 123-mile stage. Cavendish was involved in the crash and crossed 1 minute, 25 seconds after the leaders.
Petacchi covered the leg from Grado to Valdobbiadene at the foot of the Dolomite Range in 4 hours, 45 minutes, 27 seconds. Farrar and Gavazzi finished with the same time.
Petacchi holds an eight-second lead on Farrar. Armstrong had the same time as Petacchi and is 31 seconds behind the Italian in the overall standings.
Two American riders with the Garmin-Slipstream squad -- Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie -- fell on a downhill run at the 87-mile mark. Zabriskie got back on his bike and rejoined the pack, but Vande Velde stayed on the ground and was taken to a hospital with two broken ribs and a severely bruised and sprained back. Vande Velde is out of the race.
Armstrong returned this season after 3½ years of retirement and broke his collarbone in March. He has ridden with authority in the opening three stages and is higher in the overall standings than any of the other favorites.
"He looks pretty good," said 2007 Giro winner Danilo Di Luca, who is sixth overall. "You shouldn't ever underestimate him."
Riders like Di Luca need to attack early to make up time they will lose in the two individual time trials later in the race.
Armstrong said before the race that he would support teammate Levi Leipheimer in his bid to win. But another American on the Astana team, Chris Horner, indicated the squad's hierarchy hasn't been established yet.
"They're both leaders of the team, there's no doubt about it," Horner said. "Levi's been going good all year and Lance is starting to come on."
Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said he planned to let Basso's Liquigas team, Di Luca's LPR squad and Damiano Cunego's Lampre team set the pace.
"Those are the three main teams and favorites for this race, and I think they have a plan," Bruyneel said. "We will try to follow for the moment."
Armstrong gained time on Basso in Sunday's second stage when the Italian got caught behind a crash in the final miles.
"The bike races are going faster now with the surfaces of the roads, the equipment, the way that the wheels roll now," Armstrong said. "I think we have to evaluate in the future how we do the finales. With 200 fit guys and fast bikes it's hard."
Armstrong's former teammate Fabio Casartelli died in a downhill crash during the 1995 Tour de France.
"In less than a second your career can change -- your life can change. I mean I've seen all examples," Armstrong said. "I've seen somebody die. I've seen somebody lose a career and I've seen somebody lose a season."
Tuesday's 100-mile stage starts in Padua. The first significant climb comes at the 69th mile, a 5.3-mile ascent to Croce d'Aune. The road then begins to tilt upward again at the 92-mile mark. A more arduous mountain stage looms Wednesday, from San Martino to Alpe di Siusi.
"Frankly and honestly, I don't have a lot of pressure," Armstrong said. "I'm pretty relaxed. I know that I'm working my way back and nobody expects me to ride away tomorrow or the next day. I can go into it pretty chill."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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