- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

BRIGNOLES, France | Lance Armstrong just wanted to stay out of trouble on a scorching day that one rider said was better suited for baking bread.

British sprinter Mark Cavendish won the second stage of the Tour de France on Sunday, with Armstrong finishing safely in the pack and Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland keeping the leader’s yellow jersey. Cancellara captured the opening time trial a day earlier.

Cancellara has an 18-second lead on 2007 winner Alberto Contador of Spain. Bradley Wiggins of Britain is third, 19 seconds behind. Armstrong, the seven-time champion, is 10th, 40 seconds back.

Tyler Farrar of the United States finished second, and Romain Feillu of France was third in the 116-mile route from Monaco to Brignoles.

Armstrong is making a comeback to the Tour four years after retiring. The 37-year-old Texan said his strategy for this leg was “just avoid trouble and get in the rhythm of the race.”

The Tour rolls across the rim of the Mediterranean for mostly flat stages the next few days with a challenging team time trial Tuesday. Three days in the demanding Pyrenees start in Stage 7.

“Yesterday was not really a normal stage,” Armstrong said. “These start to be the more normal stages.”

The heat was anything but normal.

“The heat was like you were baking bread. … It was terrible,” Cancellara said on French TV. He recounted how with about an hour left of riding his team manager said the temperature hit 104 degrees. “I haven’t seen heat like that in years.”

Cavendish had little trouble with the conditions. The 24-year-old, who is from the rarely hot Isle of Man, won three stages in the Giro d’Italia in May and is proving to be among the world’s top sprinters.

He burst from the main pack behind a textbook escort by his Columbia teammates, then took over alone to finish a split second in front.

“I’m glad I could win to just pay them back,” Cavendish said, who finished in 4 hours, 30 minutes, 2 seconds - the same time as all but two of the riders. “It’s emotional for me.”

With his fifth career Tour stage win, Cavendish took the green jersey awarded to the best sprinter. This is his third Tour, but he has never finished. He wants that to change when the three-week race ends July 26 in Paris.

Armstrong, Contador and other title contenders approached the stage cautiously to avoid crashes. Armstrong was 80th and Contador 58th.

The stage featured four minor climbs along sun-baked hills in a layout that favored sprinters and breakaway specialists. During the ride, water bottles sailed out of the pack like corn kernels popping as cyclists refreshed themselves along a route that featured medieval sites like a Cistercian abbey.

There were three minor crashes midway through the race. One involved Saxo Bank team rider Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, a possible title contender.

In the first, Jurgen Van De Walle, a Belgian with the Quick Step team, scraped and bruised his left shoulder and knee. It was not clear whether he would start Monday.

“With the heat like that, sometimes there’s a lack of concentration among the riders,” Cancellara said.

The field will face a similar ride Monday, a 122-mile leg from the port city of Marseille to La Grande-Motte. The forecast calls for hot weather.

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