- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

COLMAR, France | Lance Armstrong stayed in third place after a wet and chilly ride Friday and lost a crucial ally for the rest of the Tour de France when teammate Levi Leipheimer withdrew because of a broken wrist.

The 13th stage from Vittel to Colmar, won by Germany’s Heinrich Haussler, was less secure for riders Julian Dean and Oscar Freire, who were slightly injured by shots from a suspected air rifle from the roadside.

The top standings didn’t change in the 124-mile stage through the rolling hills of northeast France that featured three big climbs, including the demanding Col du Platzerwasel.

Armstrong, who trails overall leader Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy by eight seconds and Astana teammate Alberto Contador by two, said a crucial showdown awaits in Sunday’s ride into Switzerland.

“That one is almost a guarantee because it’s uphill,” the seven-time champion said of the ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski station of Verbier. “For sure, it’s a decisive stage and exciting for the fans.”

Armstrong and Contador expressed regret about the withdrawal of Leipheimer before the stage. Leipheimer, who had been fourth overall, 39 seconds behind Nocentini, fell off his bike and broke his wrist in the last two miles of Thursday’s stage.

He had surgery on the wrist Friday, and Astana said he would return to the United States as soon as possible to begin his recovery.

“My wrist hurts a lot but it doesn’t compare to the pain of watching the Tour leave me behind and not be able to ride the Tour with my teammates,” Leipheimer said. “We’ve had a big battle so far. We’re the favorites, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Leipheimer and Armstrong have a close relationship within Astana, which Armstrong says is riven by “tension” with Contador.

“He’s a good friend of mine, so it makes it even more unfortunate, but that’s cycling,” said Armstrong, stressing that Leipheimer’s absence is a big loss.

“You saw even there, in some stages in the Pyrenees, when there was an attack, we had four guys there. And now, one’s gone,” Armstrong said. “Not only does it hurt us, I think it helps the others in terms of morale, and thinking perhaps that the team has been weakened.”

Pounding rain forced many in the pack to don windbreakers and made conditions unfavorable for potential contenders Cadel Evans of Australia, brothers Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg and the 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre.

“It was really, really cold,” Armstrong, who is riding in his 12th Tour, told the Associated Press. “To be honest, I don’t remember a day in the Tour that has been colder than that one.”

Some riders were forced to contend with more than just slick conditions on rain-soaked roads. New Zealand’s Dean and Freire, a three-time world champion from Spain, were slightly injured during the stage by shots from what their teams suspect was an air rifle.

A projectile embedded in Freire’s thigh was removed by a Rabobank team doctor. Dean’s right index finger was injured, said Marya Pongrace, a spokeswoman for his Garmin-Slipstream team.

Police were investigating. Both cyclists were expected to start Saturday’s mostly flat 14th stage, a 124-mile trek through plains from Colmar to Besancon, the teams said.

The riders were hit in the descent from the Col du Platzerwasel, the hardest of Friday’s climbs about 22 miles from the finish, Rabobank said.

Contador, the 26-year-old winner of the 2007 Tour and a pre-race favorite, said Sunday’s ride isn’t likely to separate the main title contenders, insisting the 5.47-mile uphill finish up to Verbier is too short to give contenders enough space to chisel out large time gaps.

“This [Tour] layout isn’t favorable to attacks,” Contador said. “There should have been more uphill finishes … I would have liked a different type of course.”

Leipheimer’s injury was not the only thing to trouble Armstrong. He was angered by the criticism from French Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot, who said Astana riders stayed out of sight too long during a random doping check last week.

“Enough is enough,” the 37-year-old Texan said. “This is ridiculous. We’ve been controlled more than anybody else on the race. We have had this team for a long time. We’ve never had a positive control. Yes, we are successful. Yes, we are the strongest team in the race. But enough of the [outcry] in the media.”

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