- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

SEDAN, France (AP) — For Lance Armstrong, finishing 54th yesterday made for a good day — perfect, actually — on the Tour de France.

It may seem strange that the four-time champion is, for the moment at least, happy to hang back as he chases a record-tying fifth victory.

Experience has taught Armstrong there’s little point in exhausting himself up front — and risk being caught in crashes — when there’s 18 days of racing and many hard, long miles left.

For now, Armstrong and his formidable U.S. Postal Service team are happy to let other riders take the early stages that finish with fierce and sometimes dangerous sprints.

The Postals are setting their sights on crucial team time-trials tomorrow and the Alps, where Armstrong aims to start powering away from his rivals up lung-burning climbs.

Yesterday, Armstrong finished in a pack behind winner Baden Cooke of Australia in the second stage of the Tour. He was in 10th place overall.

“A team like us just hopes for the mountains to come as fast as they can and get out unscathed,” Dan Osipow, the Postal Service team’s general manager, said as the riders set out on the relatively flat 126.8-mile second stage of the Tour to Sedan, a town near the border with Belgium.

Cooke, a sprinter who last year finished 127th overall, won the stage in a fierce dash at the finish, beating French rider Jean-Patrick Nazon and Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu by a whisker.

The risks of the Tour’s early days, when riders still have fresh legs and newcomers are adjusting to racing in the large pack of nearly 200 cyclists, were highlighted in the first stage Sunday.

Spain’s Jose Enrique Gutierrez lost control of his bike on the final turn, causing a dramatic pileup that took out about 35 riders — Armstrong among them. Armstrong wasn’t badly injured but suggested yesterday that the Tour think about leaving some less experienced cyclists behind.

“The biggest problem is 200 fresh guys,” Armstrong said. “Given the intensity these days, 150 guys is a lot safer than 200.”

“Some of the guys have never done the Tour, they want to take risks, sort of like cowboys,” he said.

Overall, Armstrong is 10th, just 11 seconds off current race leader Bradley McGee, an Australian sprint specialist who won the Tour’s first event Saturday, a race against the clock through the streets of Paris.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and a key rival of Armstrong’s, is 5th overall, just five seconds ahead of the Texan.

Cooke had never won a stage on the Tour before yesterday.

“It’s incredible. I can’t believe it,” he said. “The final sprint was very, very dangerous … Every day you take your chances. Usually it doesn’t work, but today it worked.”

Like McGee, Cooke races for French squad Fdjeux.com, which now has won two of the three Tour races run so far.

“There’s an incredible spirit in the team,” McGee said. “That’s why we’re working well together. On the Tour de France you need a good spirit because of all the stress.”

McGee finished 52nd yesterday, close enough to Cooke to retain the coveted yellow jersey worn by the overall Tour leader.

Armstrong’s former teammate, U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, completed the second stage with a fractured collarbone suffered in Sunday’s crash.

“I was aching all day, there was this really sharp pain. But if it was more than I could take then I would not have continued,” Hamilton said after finishing 100th out of the 196 riders. He was eighth overall.

Two other injured riders, Marc Lotz of the Netherlands and U.S. cyclist Levi Leipheimer, were unable to race.

Injured Frenchman Jimmy Casper rode with a neck brace. Casper, also of Fdjeux.com, finished 189th, 10 minutes behind Cooke.

The stage started at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, east of Paris. Cooke finished the route in 5 hours, 6 minutes and 33 seconds, averaging 25 miles per hour.

For a long while, French rider Frederic Finot looked set to take the stage, breaking away with another rider just three miles after the start. They built up a lead of more than 11 minutes at one point over the chasing pack. But the other rider, Lilian Jegou, finally dropped back, leaving Finot alone. He was caught by the pack just 11/2 miles before the finish.

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