Voeckler takes lead from willing Armstrong

Updated: July 8, 2004, 3:56 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARTRES, France -- Lance Armstrong lost his overall lead in the Tour de France to Thomas Voeckler on Thursday, an honor the five-time champion willingly conceded -- for now.

Withstanding rain-doused roads and high wind, Australia's Stuart O'Grady of Cofidis won the Tour's fifth stage with a sprint finish ahead of Voeckler and three other riders who broke early from the main pack and held on.

O'Grady thrust his arms in the air after winning a Tour de France stage for the second time in his career. Denmark's Jakob Piil was second and France's Sandy Casar was third. Voeckler, the French champion, was fourth.

At one point, the five-rider group built a lead as large as 17 minutes ahead of the pack on the 124.6-mile stage from Amiens to Chartres.

The breakaway riders clocked 5 hours, 5 minutes and 58 seconds; Armstrong and the pack finished 12 minutes, 33 seconds later.

Armstrong, who was 24th in the stage, fell to sixth overall -- 9 minutes and 35 seconds off Voeckler's pace.

The U.S. Postal Service team tried to include George Hincapie in the break, but Jan Ullrich's T-Mobile team kept reeling them back in.

"We tried, but T-Mobile kept chasing down George and the guys we put in the break," Armstrong said.

Asked if any of the five riders could threaten his try for the overall crown, Armstrong said, "I don't know."

Later, Armstrong disclosed he would skip the Athens Games to spend more time with his children. The Summer Olympics begin about three weeks after the end of the Tour de France on July 25.

When asked what his Tour lead over Armstrong meant, Voeckler chuckled.

"Oh, I don't think he's worried about me," the 25-year-old Frenchman said.

Voeckler, riding for Brioches La Boulangere, epitomized how fickle the Tour can be from one day to the next. He entered the stage three minutes behind Armstrong in 59th place.

Mishaps -- tire punctures, derailed chains and spills on rain-soaked roads -- marred much of the course through bucolic wheat fields and rolling hills northwest of Paris.

Armstrong, seeking a record sixth straight Tour victory, captured the overall leader's yellow jersey a day earlier, thanks in part to a first-place performance in the team time trial by his U.S. Postal Service squad.

But controlling the race lead so early brings pressures along with honors -- and Armstrong's coach said the 32-year-old Texan was willing to give up the yellow jersey temporarily and focus on bigger threats.

"We can't kill the team for a breakaway by five people who aren't a threat in the overall classification," Postal sporting director Johan Bruyneel said. "I'm comfortable with the situation."

Four of Armstrong's U.S. Postal teammates crashed about halfway through the course. Jose Luis Rubiera was treated by a race doctor, who swabbed down his leg from a car as the rider hung on to the vehicle's window.

Australian sprint specialist Bradley McGee, who complained of hip problems from the start of the race, dropped out Thursday.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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