Armstrong second-guesses RadioShack teammates

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REIMS, France | Lance Armstrong’s flat tire has done more than just deflate some of his hopes for another Tour de France victory. It’s also caused a bit of second-guessing within his RadioShack team.

Before Wednesday’s flat fourth stage, won by Italy’s Alessandro Petacchi in a sprint, Armstrong said he and his teammates could have better managed the cobblestones where he punctured a tire and lost time the previous day.

Wednesday’s ride didn’t shake up the overall standings, with Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara retaining the yellow jersey, and many riders were still pondering the blows suffered by Armstrong and RadioShack on Tuesday.

“In hindsight, as a team, I think we all agree we could have ridden differently yesterday,” Armstrong said. “You can look at the position we went into the cobbles (in), you can look at perhaps the amount of the time we spent on the sides, which I think has an effect.”

He said “you obviously get more flats” on the roadsides instead of the cobblestones. Some riders use the sides to avoid the jarring bumps over the stones. While Armstrong took about 45 seconds to get a new tire, rivals like Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck zoomed ahead to gain seconds that will be valuable when the three-week race reaches the mountains later on.

It was a far cry from Armstrong’s seven-year domination at the Tour from 1999 to 2005, when he often lavished praise on teammates for their help in his victories — and when luck, more often than not, was on his side.

Now, he’s trailing, and the blame is to be shared.

“Like they say, you create your own luck, and we created our bad luck yesterday,” Armstrong said. “We made our luck, we can’t blame anybody but ourselves.”

Armstrong received a huge fan ovation as he left the team bus Wednesday. He took so long getting to the start line that he didn’t sign in at the starter’s podium — and got a $94 fine for it.

The overall standings remained the same after Wednesday’s 95.4-mile ride from Cambrai to the champagne capital Reims — a mostly flat trek that was tailor-made for sprinters.

Lampre rider Petacchi earned his second stage victory this year in a mass sprint, with Armstrong and other title contenders finishing safely in the pack with the same time: 3 hours, 34 minutes, 55 seconds. Cancellara did too, and retained the yellow jersey for a fourth day.

Armstrong crossed 36th, Contador was 32nd and Schleck placed 58th.

Johan Bruyneel, RadioShack’s manager and Armstrong’s longtime mentor, said the Texan and the team “are all disappointed” because of his loss of time against Schleck and Contador — two strong climbers who will be tough to get ahead of in the Alps and Pyrenees.

“But it’s two and a half weeks to go, what happens to us today can happen to somebody else tomorrow,” Bruyneel said.

Overall, among the title contenders, two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans was third, 39 seconds back, Schleck sixth, 1:09 back, Contador ninth, 1:40 back, and Armstrong 18th, 2:30 behind.

The 38-year-old Texan knows team strategy now has to change. He’s just not sure how.

“You’ve got 200 guys out there who have their strategy, too,” he said. “You have to respond and react accordingly, but we are going to have to be more opportunistic.”

After Wednesday’s ride, Armstrong said he was happy to get out of the relatively short course without mishap — after being one of dozens of riders who crashed during a rainy second stage and the flat in Stage 3.

“I didn’t want to have a third day in a row of bad luck,” he said. “(It’s) nice that everybody stayed up.”

So how does he handle bad luck?

“You just deal with it, make it happen,” he said, before cutting his comments short while being heckled by a nearby fan. “There’s always crashes, days like yesterday are so extreme there’s nothing you can do.”

Five riders took an early jump in Wednesday’s stage, chiseling out a maximum lead of 3:50 before the pack barreled down to catch up with about 2½ miles to go.

Then, the sprinters’ teams got into formation at the front.

Petacchi, who is competing in his first Tour since 2005, veered wide left to get a jump on three lead riders — including Thor Hushovd of Norway and Britain’s Mark Cavendish — with about 400 meters left.

By the end, Petacchi had dusted them and edged second-placed Julian Dean of New Zealand, who was briefly hospitalized for a badly bruised back in a crash Tuesday. Edval Boasson Hagen of Norway was third.

“I’m really happy … I had nothing to lose, and I wanted to try my chances,” said Petacchi, who won four stages in the 2004 Tour. “At this stage in my career, winning two Tour stages is really important.”

Cavendish, who won six Tour stages last year and whom some have called cycling’s bad boy, hurled his bike in frustration after the stage.

“I don’t think he has anything to learn from me. He won six last year,” the 36-year-old Petacchi said.

Thursday’s fifth stage also presents a mostly flat stage, a 116.5-mile cruise from Epernay to Montargis. The next big challenges loom in the Alps starting with Sunday’s eighth stage.

The race ends July 25 in Paris.

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AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

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