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Sprint finish goes to Australian

7/8/2005

MONTARGIS, France -- No yellow jersey Wednesday. No race
Thursday.

It didn't take Lance Armstrong long to make up his mind.

The six-time defending Tour de France champion tried to start
the day without the leader's yellow jersey on his back, a gesture
of sportsmanship to honor the former bearer, who lost it when he
crashed a day earlier.

Race officials, though, wouldn't hear of it.

So the 33-year-old Texan relented and then cruised to another
day in the overall lead.

"It's nice to have the yellow jersey, but it's not critical.
The one that matters the most is July 24th," he said, referring to
the last day of the grueling race.

Armstrong captured the race lead Tuesday from compatriot David
Zabriskie, a Team CSC rider and former Armstrong teammate, who
crashed into a barricade in the final moments of the team time
trial.

Out of "respect" for Zabriskie, Armstrong set off in the
pre-race ride wearing his blue and white Discovery Channel uniform
-- but race officials stopped everybody before the starting line and
asked Armstrong to put on le maillot jaune.

"There was no problem, just a little confusion in the
beginning, having not started in the jersey," Armstrong said. "I
didn't feel that it was right to start in the jersey."

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc then got strict about the rule
book, which states that the overall race leader "must wear" the
yellow jersey.

"There was no negotiation," Armstrong told France-2
television. "Jean-Marie said: 'You don't start in the jersey, and
you don't start tomorrow.' So I said 'OK.'

"It didn't feel right to take the jersey on somebody else's
misfortune, but Jean-Marie had other ideas," he said. "I wanted
to try and do the right thing and make some sort of a sporting
gesture."

Zabriskie expressed appreciation for it, and said Armstrong had
spoken to him after the race: "He was nice."

Declining to wear the yellow jersey after its bearer crashes is
nothing new. In 1971, the great Eddy Merckx took the race lead
after a spill by Luis Ocana, but opted not to wear the jersey the
next day. In 1998, Britain's Chris Boardman crashed in stage two
and Germany's Erik Zabel decided not to don the yellow shirt for
the third stage.

Spared the crashes and strokes of bad luck that have befuddled
others, Armstrong enjoys some breathing space between his main
rivals in his quest for a seventh straight Tour victory.

He leads T-Mobile rider Alexandre Vinokourov by 1:21, CSC's Ivan
Basso by 1:26 and Jan Ullrich -- the 1997 Tour winner -- by 1:36.
Ullrich was banged up in a training session a day before the Tour
start and has not been in top form.

Armstrong's game plan is to ride safe and easy through the early
stages of the three-week race, waiting for the mountain stages,
where he excels, to try to chisel out bigger gaps. He won't go
all-out now to hold the lead: His main goal is to wear yellow on
the last race day.

On Wednesday, the nervous pack battled wind, intermittent rain
and slick roads, and there were several crashes. Basso got caught
up in one and suffered road rash on one leg.

Australia's Robbie McEwen, of the Davitamon-Lotto team, won the
stage in a sprint, outpacing Belgian Tom Boonen in second and
Norway's Thor Hushovd in third.

Armstrong cruised across the finish in 45th place in a pack of
riders that clocked the same time as McEwen -- 3 hours, 46 minutes --
for the 113.7-mile ride from Chambord to Montargis.

With 6.8 miles left, the main pack of cyclists caught up with a
small group that had broken out early. By the finish, only six of
the 189 riders clocked times slower than McEwen's pace.

The International Olympic Committee's choice of London as the
host city for the 2012 Games cast a pall over the stage. Tour
organizers had helped promote Paris' bid, and Leblanc said he was
"a little sad" that the French capital had lost out.

"We've been hit by a sort of moroseness since the announcement
about London's victory. We have the feeling of having been beaten a
bit unfairly," he added, without elaborating.

Armstrong said he heard the news by radio in mid-course.

"I'm surprised by that decision," Armstrong said. "It almost
felt like it was over, like it was a sure thing -- then to hear
London ..."

Thursday's stage guides riders along another mostly flat stage,
a 123.7-mile trek from Troyes to Nancy. Armstrong and company are
upbeat, but wary of mishaps.

"These days are really ... a lot of stress," said Johan
Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's team. "You want to stay safe and
nothing to happen. But things are going good."