Armstrong's luck holds so far in eventful TourPosted: Tuesday July 15, 2003 8:09 AM
Updated: Tuesday July 15, 2003 8:22 AM
GAP, France (AP) -- Stomach bugs, high-speed crashes, near misses, treks across bumpy fields -- it's been an eventful Tour de France for Lance Armstrong so far.
The Texan, seeking a record-equaling fifth straight Tour win, narrowly missed crashing for the second time Monday in the showcase race's centennial year.
Just over a week ago, he was lucky to avoid serious injury in the race's opening stage -- emerging with just bruising from a pileup involving 35 riders.
In Monday's ninth stage, won by Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, only lightning reactions and a penchant for improvisation prevented a potentially disastrous fall.
Sweeping down a steep descent close to the finish line in Gap, Armstrong had to swerve suddenly as Spanish rider Joseba Beloki -- a fraction ahead of the Texan -- jammed his wheel and fell from his bike.
"The back wheel locked up and he couldn't control it, and then the back tire rolled and exploded," said Armstrong, recalling his rival's crash.
Armstrong has ridden in many of Europe's quirkiest locations, but the sight of him trundling across a sun-parched field was a new experience.
In avoiding Beloki, who lay prone on his side and was then rushed to hospital, Armstrong had no option but to skid off the road.
To rejoin the race, he decided against getting back on the boiling tarmac, and took the scenic route instead.
Armstrong turned left into a field, rode a short way, then lifted his high-tech bike onto his shoulder, as he delicately trod down a small hill of about 1 meter (3 feet).
Because he did not gain any time and did not do it on purpose, Armstrong was not penalized for skipping the bend he missed when he went through the field.
He eventually clambered back onto the road as a swarm of riders zoomed past him -- including former U.S. Postal teammate Tyler Hamilton, who patted Armstrong on the back as he cycled past.
"I was lucky that the field was there like that. It could have been full of crops, it could be a drop off, I was lucky," a relieved Armstrong said after finishing fourth in the stage.
He remains in first place overall, with 11 stages remaining.
"I expected to get a flat tire, or have a problem with the wheel. But hey, I was lucky that I made it through," he added.
Armstrong's luck seems to be improving.
Prior to the Tour, he was laid low by a bout of gastroenteritis, and had also been bothered by a new pair of cycling shoes he found uncomfortable -- he has since reverted back to tried and trusted footwear.
In Sunday's eighth stage, also in the Alps, the 31-year-old said he had experienced technical problems with the brakes on his bike.
Hardly smooth preparation, then, for his bid to join Spain's Miguel Indurain as the only rider ever to have won the Tour five times in a row.
However, despite all the trials and tribulations, the coveted leader's yellow jersey is still his.
Beloki, who finished third in 2000 and 2001 and runner-up to Armstrong last year, is out of the competition.
Tour doctors said he suffered a a fractured right leg, right elbow and right wrist. Beloki was being flown to Vitoria, Spain, for an operation on his right leg, Tour organizers said Tuesday.
"I feel very sorry for him," Armstrong said. "You don't want to lose one of your main competitors through a crash. There's another way to eliminate people."
Prior to Monday's stage, a 184.5-kilometer (114.4-mile) mountain route starting from Bourg d'Oisans, Beloki was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall standings.
Having stuck with Armstrong in the previous two Alpine stages, Beloki was neck and neck as both tried to catch Vinokourov in the final 8 kilometers (5 miles) of Monday's sun-drenched stage.
Vinokourov is emerging as something of a dark horse at this year's Tour.
In March, the 29-year-old won the prestigious Paris-Nice race -- becoming only the seventh rider ever to win it back-to-back.
Vinokourov, who races for Team Telekom, dedicated that win to his countryman Andrei Kivilev, the Cofidis rider who died from head injuries suffered after a fall during the same race.
"We were all in a hurry to catch Vinokourov because he's a threat overall," Armstrong said.
Armstrong called Monday's stage, which featured two climbs over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) "the hardest day of this Tour for the team," and had a tough time negotiating the Col du Lautaret, which peaks at 2,058 meters (6,791 feet).
"The Lautaret is a hard way to start," Armstrong said. "It's long and it comes after a couple of hard days ... I suspect tomorrow should not be so bad, and the you have a rest day, then the shortest day and then the time trial."
Tuesday's stage is a 219.5-kilometer (136.1-mile), relatively flat route, starting from Gap and ending in the southern seaport city of Marseille.
The remaining 172 riders -- 26 have abandoned so far -- then have a rest day Wednesday.
Armstrong leads Vinokourov in the overall standings by 21 seconds, with Spain's Iban Mayo -- who finished third Monday -- 1:02 behind Armstrong overall.
Spain's Francisco Mancebo is fourth, 1:37 behind Armstrong, Hamilton is fifth, 1:52 behind, with Jan Ullrich -- a Tour winner in 1997 and a contender this year -- in sixth, 2:10 adrift.