Armstrong finishes in the pack
ANGERS, France -- Lance Armstrong recovered from an early fall and avoided a late crash, finishing in a pack behind stage winner and former teammate Tom Boonen of Belgium in the Tour de France on Friday.
Armstrong and rival Jan Ullrich of T-Mobile managed to stay clear of a major wreck near the finish that involved all but about 30 riders.
According to the rules, competitors held up in a crash in the final kilometer of a stage are given the same time as the winner.
Boonen and a pack of riders, including Armstrong and Ullrich, finished the stage in 4 hours, 33 minutes, 41 seconds. Ullrich was 26th, and Armstrong 34th.
Thomas Voeckler of France retained the overall leader's yellow jersey and was 9 minutes, 35 seconds ahead of the sixth-place Armstrong. Ullrich is another 55 seconds back.
Armstrong quickly got back in the race after the early fall and, with help from his U.S. Postal Service teammates, caught up with the pack
"It was a typical early race crash," he said. "There's nothing you can do. You hit the brakes, but bikes don't stop that fast, so I just went over."
Armstrong said he was not seriously hurt.
"It wasn't bad, a little bit on the arm, a little bit on the hip," he said.
The five-time champion also criticized organizers for the narrow layout of the final stretch into the finish.
"Coming in, they've got the barriers really tight, and you've got 200 guys racing through there at 40 mph. ... You're going to have crashes," Armstrong said.
Boonen won a sprint finish, speeding past Cofidis' Stuart O'Grady of Australia and T-Mobile rider Erik Zabel of Germany, hoisting his arms into air as he crossed the line.
"It was really a great win," said Boonen, who is riding in his first Tour. "I love this kind of sprint -- hard -- for really strong sprinters.''
Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen of Lotto Domo got caught in the crash and rode slowly to the finish line with a huge hole in his racing shorts after sliding along the tarmac.
The spill was the first of this Tour for Armstrong and came a day after the 32-year-old Texan said he was worried about crashing. Adverse conditions marred much of the first week, although weather for Friday's stage was balmy by comparison and mostly rain-free.
"In this race, I'm always scared, always nervous," he said. "The last two or three days for me, personally, have been really, really nerve-racking.
"It's a stressful race."
Viatceslav Ekimov of Russia, Armstrong's trusted teammate who usually steers him through crashes and other hazards, arrived last and battered at Postal's bus, a thin stream of blood running down his right leg.
Five Postal riders were among the top 10 in the overall standings after the stage.
American Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of Armstrong who now rides for Phonak, blew a tire. He caught up with the main group near the 36-mile mark and finished 102st in the stage. He is 13th overall.
The fast-paced sixth stage took place without two of cycling's fastest sprinters -- Italians Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi, who pulled out of the race before the start due to injury.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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