- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

BESANCON, France | Lance Armstrong was unfazed about slipping to fourth place at the Tour de France. Instead, he was riled that his former lieutenant, George Hincapie, was deprived of the yellow jersey - reportedly by a rival U.S. team.

Hincapie, the only man to be a teammate of Armstrong’s on all seven of his Tour victories, came within five seconds of the race lead in the 14th stage, won Saturday by Russia’s Serguei Ivanov.

The ride was marred by the death of a 61-year-old female spectator after she was hit by an escorting police motorcycle while she crossed the course route. Two other fans were injured.

Columbia rider Hincapie finished the 124-mile stage from Colmar to Besancon in an eight-man group 16 seconds after the Russian and 5 minutes, 36 seconds ahead of the main race contenders.

Starting the stage as the highest-placed rider in the breakaway group, 5:25 behind leader Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy, Hincapie had a shot to swipe the leader’s yellow shirt.

Instead, as Armstrong and his Astana team claimed, the U.S. squad Garmin-Slipstream pressed the pace in a way that helped the Italian hold a slim lead over Hincapie.

Armstrong, on his Twitter feed, took aim at Garmin-Slipstream, which competes with Columbia for dibs as the top American squad at the Tour this year.

“No one wanted George in yellow more than me,” he tweeted.

“Until [6.2 miles] to go he was solidly in yellow until GARMIN put on the gas and made sure it didn’t happen,” Armstrong wrote.

Hincapie “deserves to be in yellow tonight. He deserves more than that,” he added.

French TV cameras showed Hincapie as he watched Nocentini’s pack cross the finish line - and he harumphed in frustration that he had not garnered the yellow shirt.

“I don’t know why you would do that with George at this stage of his career,” Columbia manager Bob Stapleton said.

“I mean that’s a victory for everybody. That’s something that would have gotten attention all over the U.S., that would have been good for the whole sport in America,” he said.

A Garmin spokeswoman didn’t respond to calls seeking comment after the stage.

For Armstrong, it was little matter that Hincapie’s performance put him in second overall, bumping him and Astana teammate Alberto Contador each down a notch in the standings.

Contador, who too said he hoped Hincapie would take the race lead, dropped from second to third, but remains six seconds behind Nocentini. The Texan fell from third to fourth, eight seconds back.

Sentiment aside, Hincapie in yellow would have meant that his powerful Columbia team would take on the tough job of protecting the race lead in Sunday’s 15th stage - the first ride in the Alps and a likely pivot point for the overall standings. Astana, with its big stars, could let Columbia do the work of leading the pack.

Astana doesn’t consider Hincapie a threat for overall victory when the Tour ends next Sunday in Paris. He isn’t expected to fare as well as Contador and Armstrong in the Alps or in a critical individual time trial in Thursday’s Stage 18.

“Garmin just wanted to prevent another American team from taking the yellow jersey. It’s not right,” Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said. “It’s not very sporting.

“It’s a story that I think will continue,” he said.

“Given the history we have with George, I would have liked him to take the jersey - but independent of that, I don’t think it was a fair way of racing,” he added.

Columbia suffered a second blow: Its star sprinter, Mark Cavendish of Britain, was fined and penalized by Tour officials for blocking his rival Thor Hushovd in a final sprint. The two men are competing for the green jersey awarded to the Tour’s best sprinter.

Cavendish was demoted to last place in the stage, vastly denting his hopes of taking home the green jersey by depriving him of points he could have gained in the discipline. Hushovd has the green jersey.

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