LA GRANDE-MOTTE, France -- If age is Lance Armstrong's enemy, then experience is his friend.
With a savvy sense of the pack and a touch of luck, the 37-year-old Texan surprised some of the younger Tour de France contenders Monday to move within striking distance of the yellow jersey.
He made up for what his legs lack in power with road smarts during the breezy third stage along the Mediterranean, rising from 10th to third place.
Armstrong hitched a ride with a breakaway group led by old sidekick George Hincapie's Team Columbia. Mark Cavendish, a Columbia rider from Britain, won the stage for the second straight day.
Race leader Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland kept the yellow jersey for a third day in a row. The Swiss rider with Saxo Bank extended his lead and is ahead of Columbia rider Tony Martin of Germany by 33 seconds and Armstrong by 40.
Most of the favorites were trapped by the wind during the 122-mile ride from Marseille to La Grande-Motte. Sensing the gusts were playing havoc ahead of a turn with about 18 miles to go, Armstrong simply stayed in front, outfoxing riders like Alberto Contador of Spain, the 2007 Tour winner and favorite this year.
"Good positioning, experience, a little bit of luck," Armstrong said. "Just before that corner I was 20 guys back and I decided just that idea to move up enough to be on their wheel. And there it went."
"Whenever you see a team lined up at the front like that, you have to pay attention," he added. "You know what the wind's doing, and you see that a turn's coming up, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you have to go to the front."
But Contador didn't. Nor did Levi Leipheimer of the United States or Cadel Evans of Australia or 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. All lost 41 seconds to Cavendish, Armstrong and Cancellara.
Contador dropped from second to fourth overall, 59 seconds behind Cancellara. Leipheimer, Armstrong's Astana teammate, slipped from sixth to 10th, and is 1:11 back.
"I was moving up with a teammate and we ended up in no man's land," Contador said. "I'm not going to evaluate the team strategy because everyone will draw their own conclusions anyway. In any case, the Tour won't be decided by what happened today."
Armstrong, a seven-time champion coming out of retirement, agrees.
"Gained valuable time but most likely minor in scheme of 3 weeks," he wrote on his Twitter account. The race finishes July 26 in Paris. "Onward."
Armstrong said it was "not my objective" to gain ground on Contador, insisting he was "just trying to stay up front and out of trouble."
But he may have delivered a psychological blow in this stage, leaving rivals to wonder what other opportunistic strikes await. In any case, now they have to catch him.
Tuesday's stage is a 24-mile team time trial that starts and finishes in Montpellier. Astana will have an edge by riding last and seeing how riders fare. The teams set off at seven-minute intervals in a race against the clock.
If Astana wins with enough of a gap on Cancellara's and Martin's teams, Armstrong could take the yellow jersey. Is it within reach?
"Never say never," Armstrong said.
His performance also fanned questions about who deserves the role of Astana team leader. Manager Johan Bruyneel, who coached Armstrong during his record run of victories, has said it is Contador.
"I have tried to stay out a little bit of the debate about who is the leader?" Armstrong said. "I have won the Tour seven times, so I think I deserve a bit of credit."
Armstrong started the stage by playing catch-up. Stalled by of interviewers and autograph seekers, he was so late to the start he didn't check in at the registration table. All riders are required to sign in before every stage. Tour competition director Jean-Francois Pescheux said Armstrong would receive the standard fine of 100 Swiss francs ($92).
Pescheux also criticized Armstrong for not making himself more available to fans.
"We simply asked his team to have a respectful attitude toward the public," he said. "They want to see the team, they have been here since 7 a.m. and they don't see him."
Armstrong's comeback to cycling's premier race after 3½ years of retirement has sparked considerable interest. Big crowds surround the bus to catch a glimpse of him.
"It's not that we don't respect the public. ... We always try to sign in as late as possible because it's impossible for the riders to come back to the bus [before the stage] and there are too many people around Lance and Contador," Astana team spokesman Philippe Maertens said.
Among those visiting the cycling star Monday in Marseille was actor Ben Stiller. Armstrong had a brief role in Stiller's hit comedy "Dodgeball."
"I'm a big Lance fan," Stiller said. "It's my first time on the Tour. It's the real deal here. I'm very excited."
Riders set off at a snail's pace in the heat and wind. The average pace for the first three hours was less than 22 mph. Cavendish, with his sixth Tour stage win, finished in 5 hours, 1 minute, 24 seconds.
"It was brilliant," Cavendish said. "We were the only sprint team that wanted to ride today."