LAVAUR, France -- Having all but secured a third straight title in the mountains, Lance Armstrong returned to flat land in the Tour de France to begin the long ride to Paris.
The Texan finished Tuesday's stage from Pau to Lavaur in southwest France with the main pack, about 15 minutes behind winner Rik Verbrugghe of Belgium.
The race was the first of six stretches that cover more than 600 miles between the foot of the Pyrenees and Paris, where the Tour ends July 29. The stages are unlikely to significantly affect the overall standings.
Armstrong finished in 40th place Tuesday. He maintained his overall lead, ahead of main rival Jan Ullrich of Germany by 5 minutes, 5 seconds.
Armstrong built his lead by outclassing his rivals in the five tough mountain stages. Barring sickness or accidents, he is expected to maintain a big edge in the remaining flat stages.
At 144 miles, this was the longest leg of the three-week event. Verbrugghe crossed the finish line under blazing sunshine in 5:16:21.
''I dedicate this victory to my wife and my little girl,'' the Belgian said. ''It's an unbelievable season.''
This year he won the prologue of the Giro d'Italia and the Walloon Arrow in his home country.
Italy's Marco Pinotti was second, in the same time as Verbrugghe. Countryman Alessandro Petacchi was third, six seconds off the pace.
None of the 25 riders who finished before the main pack is a serious threat to Armstrong or the other race leaders. Their performance did not affect the top of the standings.
American rider Jonathan Vaughters dropped out of the race shortly after the start because of a wasp sting the day before. He was refused permission by the International Cycling Union to treat the sting above his right eye with a cortisone injection.
''I've had some horrible luck in the Tour before,'' the Credit Agricole rider from Denver said. ''It would have been the first Tour that I finished.''
He crashed out of the race in 1999 and 2000. He quit this time after swelling from the sting obstructed his vision.
''If you can't see where you're going in a bike race it's not safe,'' said Vaughters, who was given a cortisone injection after he pulled out.
Tour officials said three riders underwent random urine tests Monday that were carried out by the cycling union and French Ministry of Sports. The unidentified riders were from the Domo Farm Frites, Rabobank and BigMat Auber93 teams.
Wednesday's stage takes riders on a 143-mile stretch from Castelsarrasin to Sarran, in southwest France.
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