Estonia's Kirsipuu wins first stage
CHARLEROI, Belgium -- Lance Armstrong took a cautious approach in the first stage of the Tour de France, meticulously avoiding a series of crashes in windy and rainy conditions.
Armstrong is pacing himself in the grueling three-week race, content to allow speedsters such as winner Jaan Kirsipuu to slug it out for early glory. The five-time champion will wait for the mountains and time trials to make his move.
While the 34-year-old Kirsipuu won the first stage Sunday, Armstrong and 176 others clocked the same time of 4 hours, 40 minutes, 29 seconds.
Kirsipuu, an Estonian who won his fourth stage ever and first in two years, powered to the finish ahead of fellow sprinters Robbie McEwen of Australia and Norway's Thor Hushovd.
The stage gave Armstrong and others a chance to shake off first-day jitters and test the field.
"He always dislikes the first couple of days," said Jogi Mueller, spokesman for Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team.
Mueller said the strategy for the first week is to stay near the front of the pack to avoid crashes and keep a close eye on breakaway riders.
Armstrong rival Tyler Hamilton, who rode most of last year's race with a double-fractured collarbone, had a small crash that left him with "a little boo-boo," but he easily rejoined the race, coach Jacques Michaud said.
Armstrong took no chances, and wore a windbreaker against the rain for part of the 125½-mile stage from Liege, also in Belgium.
The 32-year-old Texan is third overall behind Fabian Cancellara. The 23-year-old Swiss rider won the time trial prologue Saturday in the third-fastest speed in the history of that event. Armstrong was second, two seconds slower.
Sunday's stage started with a series of moderate hill climbs but leveled out toward the end, allowing the speeding pack to swallow up a pair of riders who tried to make a late breakaway.
Bonus time awards granted to Hushovd for his sprinting allowed him to take second place in the overall standings, four seconds behind. deficit. Armstrong is 10 seconds back.
Armstrong's top challenger, Jan Ullrich of Germany, remains within easy striking distance, 15 seconds behind Armstrong.
Several crashes marred the race. Those who fell but rejoined the racing included Mario Cipollini, making his Tour comeback after four years away, Spain's Oscar Sevilla and French rider Guillaume Auger. Sevilla needed a new bike.
Austria's Bernhard Eisel also had a momentary lapse of concentration, touching wheels with a rider in front and falling heavily. He barrel-rolled across the wet tarmac and skidded to a stop in the roadside grass verge, but picked himself up to resume racing.
Monday's stage is a 122-mile ride from Charleroi to Namur, Belgium, that should again favor sprinters.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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