Armstrong leads team, finishes 27th
MEERBEKE, Belgium -- Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara shook off Tom Boonen on the toughest climb of the Tour of Flanders and raced away to a solo victory ahead of the Belgian champion in one of the season's top one-day classics.
Lance Armstrong finished 27th as the leading Team Radioshack rider. He saw the event as a training run, while others raced it as their biggest challenge of the year. At 38, Armstrong proved he can still rattle and shake with the best on the wet and cold cobblestones, a key lesson to take into this summer's Tour de France.
"I felt better than I felt all year," Armstrong said after finishing more than 2 minutes behind Cancellara.
The seven-time Tour de France winner used the classic with its long stretches of cobblestones as preparation for the third stage of the Tour de France, which will include seven cobblestone sectors for eight miles.
"It is not his type of race, and to perform here like he did today is very good," team leader Johan Bruyneel told The Associated Press. "You would not expect him to compete with the specialists who target this classic."
With 18 miles to go, Armstrong was still near the head of a pack that had already had to deal with rough weather, relentless cobblestones and a dozen short but steep hills.
"A little surprising," Armstrong said of his performance.
On the typically narrow cobblestone roads, a flat tire or a crash at the front of the pack can suddenly wreak havoc. A Tour contender might suddenly face a choked road while his rival senses a big break. Suddenly, a minute or more might be lost, enough to give a rival those precious seconds he needs at the end in Paris.
"They will make for an interesting stage in July," Armstrong said.
Even though he expects rivals like Alberto Contador to prepare well for the stage, testing it under the toughest competitive conditions like Sunday adds a different dimension.
"It is the best I've done here," said Armstrong, who has not raced the Tour of Flanders very often over the past 15 years.
Then again, at his age, he doesn't want to read too much into anything. One thing was beyond a doubt, though.
"Gaining confidence," he said.
Cancellara broke away on the Wall of Geraardsbergen with 12 miles to go Sunday, and the reigning Olympic and world time trial champion never gave Boonen a chance to get close again. Belgium's Philippe Gilbert was third.
"The Wall is legendary. I gave it all I had," Cancellara said.
The Swiss champion finished the 163 miles in 6 hours, 25 minutes, 56 seconds.
Cancellara was totally relaxed over the last 8 miles along the flat roads, casually resting his forearms on the handlebar as he powered to the finish. It was Cancellara's biggest one-day victory since he took the Milan-San Remo classic two years ago. He was victorious at Paris-Roubaix in 2006 and, at 29, has now won three of the five leading one-day races.
"Toughest of all was to win the Tour of Flanders as a favorite. If you can do it like that, it doesn't get any better for an athlete," Cancellara said.
Midway through the morning, 198 racers left in the rain from under the Gothic spires of medieval Bruges on a long trek through the wind-swept flat lands of Flanders before hitting 15 short but steep climbs close to the finish in Meerbeke. Cobblestones dotted many of the late stages.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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