Lance finishes in pack; Voeckler retains overall lead
GUERET, France -- Robbie McEwen of Australia passed two riders just before the finish line Tuesday to win the ninth stage of the Tour de France, while five-time champion Lance Armstrong finished in the main pack.
Head down, McEwen passed at least 10 riders down the stretch, racing along the barriers and crossing the line just ahead of Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd, becoming the first two-stage winner of this Tour.
"It's a beautiful victory," said McEwen, who rode with a sore knee and back, injuries sustained in a crash last week. "I gave all of my energy to that sprint."
Armstrong, trying for a record sixth straight title, finished comfortably in the main pack in 44th place at the end of the undulating, hilly stage in central France. Jan Ullrich, his main rival, was 25th. Both finished in the same time as McEwen's 3 hours, 32 minutes and 55 seconds.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler retained the overall lead. He still leads sixth-placed Armstrong by 9 minutes, 35 seconds. Ullrich trails the Texan by 55 seconds.
"We just sat on the wheel, took it easy. We didn't have to take any responsibility," said Armstrong. The stage "was fine, didn't really surprise me at all."
Spain's Inigo Landaluze and Italian rider Filippo Simeoni, who broke away and rode in front for most of the race, were overtaken by McEwen, Hushovd and the chasing pack of riders in the dash for the line.
He said his knee was so painful Monday, a rest day, that he set out on Tuesday thinking, "I just hope I survive."
After Tuesday's victory, he rated his condition overall as "still very good."
"I don't want to sound like I'm a one-legged man," he said. "After today, I feel like I've been -- at least in the first half of the Tour -- the best sprinter."
The 32-year-old McEwen also won a sprint finish in stage two to Namur in Belgium. He won the green jersey as best sprinter in 2002, and now has five stage victories in seven Tours. He is the current holder of the green jersey -- and hopes to win it at the finish in Paris on July 25.
Hushovd, the Norwegian who won a sprint finish in Sunday's stage, zoomed up the left of the finish straight, while McEwen stayed right, skimming the barriers. They were neck-to-neck at the line, with McEwen just ahead.
The two breakaway riders, Landaluze and Simeoni, surged ahead of the pack 23½ miles from the start and built up a lead of around 10 minutes.
The pack began to chase with about 42 miles to go, and gradually closed the gap. As they rounded the last corner to the finish, Landaluze and Simeoni were within sight of chasers. Their tired legs couldn't get them over the line ahead of the faster sprinters.
The 99½-mile ride, the shortest of this Tour with the exception of time trial courses, started in Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat, the hometown of retired French great Raymond Poulidor.
On Wednesday, riders embark on the longest, and so far toughest, ride of the Tour, a 147-mile trek with nine climbs -- including a 3½-mile ascent up a gradient of eight percent.
"It will be hard, especially if the race starts aggressively like it did today," said Armstrong. "A lot of people will be going home if it starts like that."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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