Armstrong frets cobblestones

Posted: Tuesday, July 06, 2004

NAMUR, Belgium (AP) Lance Armstrong has no doubts about the risks that lurk in the next stage of the Tour de France: If luck goes against him, he says, his drive for a record sixth straight win could be over almost before it's begun.

One of the obstacles for the five-time champion will be bone-shaking cobblestone paths that some riders say shouldn't even be part of cycling's showcase race.

The paths are bumpy, unsettling and treacherous when wet in short, a recipe for crashes.

''Everybody is worried,'' the 32-year-old Texan said Monday. ''It's always dangerous. You have to be in the front. If you get stuck behind a crash or something like that then you could almost say that your Tour is finished.''

Armstrong is fourth overall, 18 seconds behind overall leader Thor Hushovd of Norway. He finished 85th in Monday's 122-mile second stage from Charleroi to Namur in Belgium, with a small detour into neighboring France.

So far, Armstrong seems pleased, saying his team ''is maybe the best one we've had.'' But the competition is perhaps the toughest he's faced.

Armstrong's biggest rival, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, is a mere 15 seconds back. He finished 38th in the second stage, with the same time as Armstrong.

The two cobblestone sections Tuesday come in the second half of the mostly flat 130-mile stage from Waterloo to the northern French town of Wasquehal.

They are fueling worries after two nervous days of crashes and high-speed sprints. The relatively flat early stages provide a chance for glory for sprinters who have no real hope of winning the Tour title when it ends in Paris on July 25.

The speedsters include Australia's Robbie McEwen, who dashed to victory in a mass sprint at the end of Monday's stage.

In finishes like that, Armstrong and the other riders who wait until the mountain stages to make their move do their best just avoid any spills.

Armstrong summed up the early stages succinctly: ''Very fast, very nervous, dangerous finishes.''

''It's really stressful. In the last 20 to 30 kilometers (15 to 20 miles) the pace really picks up and everybody fights,'' said American Levi Leipheimer, who is 13th overall. ''All etiquette is out the door. You do what you can you scratch and bite and do whatever.''

The first cobblestone section Tuesday runs for 1.7 miles. The second, 15 miles from the finish, is nearly three-quarters of a mile long and also forms part of the Paris-Roubaix race, a grueling classic known as ''The Hell of the North.''

Punctures, crashes, crowds are all potential hazards. Lighter riders like Armstrong risk being thrown around. Dirk Demol, assistant sporting director for Armstrong's squad, said the cobblestones should not be on the route.

''It's too risky,'' he said.

But Armstrong said he understands why the sections have been included.

''Some people's Tour will be finished,'' he said. ''I could be one of those people, and I'm not dumb enough to think that I couldn't be. And that would be a shame.

''But at the same time, the cobbles are a big part of French cycling,'' he added. ''If you look at Paris-Roubaix, they are a beautiful thing, if you look at it like that, you should say they should be part of the Tour.''

Armstrong said his team has scouted out the hazardous sections and he has ridden them.

To keep the champion safe in the fast first stages, his U.S. Postal Service squad generally designates two teammates to stay with him each day, Postal veteran George Hincapie said.

Hincapie, competing in his ninth Tour, and Viatcheslav Ekimov, a Russian on his 14th Tour, take over the bodyguard role for final 12 miles, when the pack is speeding to the line.

''We keep him out of the wind, keep him from going too far behind, just keep him in a good position all day with as little energy expenditure as possible,'' said Hincapie, 86th on Monday alongside Armstrong.

Armstrong rival Tyler Hamilton, who broke his collarbone in a crash on the second day of last year's Tour, says he would not have included the cobblestones had he designed the route.

''But that's what bike racing is all about, different terrain, mountains, flat stages, crosswinds and, this year, cobblestones,'' said Hamilton, who has ordered wider tires with extra grip to be fitted for his team Tuesday.

''We'll obviously try to stay toward the front and try to stay upright,'' he said. ''Our goal for that day is just safety.''

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