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Snatched up

Kirsipuu wins first stage; Armstrong still overall leader

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Posted: Sunday July 25, 1999 05:24 PM

  Lance Armstrong Overall leader Lance Armstrong rides in the rain shortly after the start of the first stage of the Tour de France. Doug Pensinger/Allsport

CHALLNS, France (CNN/SI) -- American Lance Armstrong held onto the overall lead as Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia won the first stage of the Tour de France.

Kirsipuu won the final sprint by the pack on a rain-slicked country roads, edging out Tom Steels of Belgium and Erik Zabel of Germany.

The overall leader remained American Lance Armstrong, who won Saturday's prologue by seven seconds in his first Tour de France since overcoming testicular cancer.

Sunday's 208-kilometer (124-mile) stage began under pouring rain in Montaigu in France's western Vendee region. The rain eased up but then returned again, making for an extremely wet beginning to the three-week race.

The stage was marked by a long breakaway by Frenchman Thierry Gouvenou, who left the pack at 78 kilometers (48 miles) but was overcome late in the race by Ludo Dierckxsens of Belgium, who was overtaken himself just before the final sprint.

Finishing fourth was Stuart O'Grady of Australia, followed by Silvio Martinelli of Italy. American George Hincapie came in eighth.

Since the pack came in together, the riders finished with the same times.

Kirsipuu, who rides for Casino, said Sunday's result was his best, "for sure."

As the race began, director Jean-Marie Leblanc made a reference to the doping scandal that nearly shut down the event last year, saying that the world of cycling "has three weeks to rehabilitate itself. And we are happy to contribute to that."

Race organizers have announced that spot drug tests will be taken in the coming days.

Signs and banners along the roads on Sunday showed that the scandal isn't far from fans' minds.

"Ride clean, and we love you," read one banner.

"Say No to EPO," said another sign, referring to the doping agent that a number of riders have acknowledged using.

Other signs showed support for Richard Virenque, the French cycling star who is under formal investigation on doping charges and denies using drugs.

Tourist Allan Rigby of Knoxville, Tennessee, said he was pessimistic about efforts to stem doping in cycling.

"I don't think they'll stop using drugs," he said. "The new drugs will come along faster than the tests will keep up."

Frenchman Alain Guerin said it was crucial that the cyclists stay clean. "We need to be natural," he said. "We are not robots."

Many top riders are missing from this year's Tour, including the defending champion, Marco Pantani, and the two previous winners, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Bjarne Riis of Denmark.

Armstrong, a two-time Olympic cyclist, scored a stunning personal triumph by winning Saturday's 6.8-kilometer (4 and 1/4 mile) time trial.

The 28-year-old Texan won the 1993 World Championship and competed for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and 1996.

In October 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He underwent surgery to remove his right testicle and lesions from his brain, and returned to racing early last year.

"At the beginning of the season, my legs hurt and I was too heavy," he said Sunday. But he said training camps in the Alps and Pyrenees ha helped him immensely.

"My legs and my spirit are better than before my illness," he said.

He said one of his secrets is that he sleeps "like a bambino."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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