Punctured tire costs Armstrong precious time and drops him to 18th place, behind rivals
Austinite can’t catch a break on cobblestones as bad tire pushes him back in pack to 18th
ARENBERG, France — Thoroughly rattled from a cobblestoneladen stage Tuesday, a reduced and realigned field of cyclists strikes out across champagne country today to begin the long clockwise tour of France.
To the riders, who have faced long distances, rain and wind, bone-jarring roadways and multiple crashes, today’s flat, 95.4-mile route from Cambrai southeast to Reims promises to be a quick blowout.
That’s what Lance Armstrong had Tuesday — a punctured tire, and although he was able to get it changed in 45 seconds, the delay cost him a spot among the bestplaced riders to finish on the final podium.
“Some days you’re the hammer,” said Armstrong, the seven- time Tour champion who is now in 18th place. “Some days you’re the nail. Today I was the nail.”
Armstrong lost 2 minutes, 8 seconds on the 131-mile stage that crossed from Belgium into northern France. Top riders navigated the rough pavement, then pushed the tempo to extraordinary speeds.
Norway’s Thor Hushovd, who is aiming for the sprinter’s green jersey, won the draining, dusty day with a time of 4 hours, 49.38 seconds. Five other riders, including ace climber Andy Schleck, received the same time as Hushovd.
Defending Tour champion Alberto Contador was 1:13 in back
of the winning group. Like Armstrong, he also suffered a flat tire, but it happened over the last section of cobbles and close enough to the finish that he minimized losses.
While Contador dropped 1:13 to Schleck, he added an advantage of 55 seconds over Armstrong. Coming into Tuesday’s stage, the conventional thinking was that the more sturdily built Armstrong would be able to use the cobblestones to build a lead over Schleck and Contador, who are known most for their explosiveness in the mountains.
“Nobody believes that I can go fast on the cobbles,” Schleck said. “But I think I’m pretty good on them. We trained on them.”
Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara regained the yellow jersey from Sylvain Chavanel. The French rider, who spent only a day in cycling’s favorite color, had the misfortune of two flat tires caused by the cobbles.
He had owned a lead of more than three minutes. Yet he dropped nearly four minutes on the dusty roads leading to Arenberg, in northern France.
For the third straight day, crashes created havoc. Eight of the 198 riders have been forced out of the race since it started Saturday. More could miss today’s start, considering 19 riders were treated by race doctors Tuesday afternoon.
The biggest rider to fall was Frank Schleck, Andy’s older brother and teammate who finished fifth in last year’s Tour. The elder Schleck broke his collarbone on a fall on the fourth stretch of cobblestones, after the peloton crossed the Belgian border into France.
Andy Schleck won’t feel his brother’s loss in today’s stage, which is set up to be dry, flat and drama free. But the elder Schleck was set to be Andy’s top mountain lieutenant. The higher climbs start Saturday.
Frank Schleck’s crash offered an immediate dilemma to the Saxo team, which along with Armstrong’s RadioShack, is considered the strongest squad in the peloton.
During the rain of Monday’s Stage 2, Cancellara was wearing the yellow jersey, yet slowed his pace when he heard Andy Schleck had fallen and bloodied two elbows.
Cancellara increased his speed when Frank Schleck fell Tuesday.
“I have mixed feelings,” Cancellara said. “It was a great day for Saxo Bank, but we lost Frank. When we heard that he’d crashed, I told Andy not to look back and to go for it.”
Andy Schleck stayed on the wheel of Cancellara, who has been the best rider on the cobbles this cycling season.
Armstrong had almost caught up to Cancellara and Schleck when his tire punctured.
Teammate Gregory Rast stopped and allowed Armstrong the use of his wheel. With the high tempo, there was no time to wait for a team car with a replacement tire.
Armstrong spent 45 seconds off his bike. Teammate Yaroslav Popovych helped pace Armstrong for as long as possible, then the RadioShack team leader zoomed forward to try and catch the contenders.
“I was stuck behind the (team) cars, eating dust and dodging people,” Armstrong said. “I’ve got no complaints. Bad luck was with me today.
“My chances (on yellow) took a knock today,” he said. “But I’m not going home.”
Lance Armstrong rides in a cloud of dust on a cobblestone section during the third stage of the Tour de France. ‘Some days you’re the hammer,’ said Armstrong, who lost ground in the standings. ‘Today I was the nail.’
Sprint specialist Thor Hushovd of Norway crosses the finish line to win the third stage Tuesday.