Lance Armstrong dealt with treacherous cobblestone sections with authority on Tuesday, but a flat tire left the 38-year-old American on the ropes following the first three stages of this year’s Tour de France.
The flat cost the seven-time Tour de France champion significant time, and he dropped from fifth to 18th in the overall standings. trailing all his main rivals.
Armstrong got off to a strong start in the Tour with a fourth place in last week’s prologue, and had another strong display during Tuesday’s daunting third stage from Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, which featured seven sectors of cobbles.
The Texan looked comfortable in the dust, handling his bike well on tiny and dented roads. At one point, Armstrong had even a small lead on defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain, who ended up in 13th place, 1 minute and 13 seconds behind stage winner Thor Hushovd of Norway.
But a puncture meant Armstrong placed 32nd, 2:08 behind.
“Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail,” Armstrong said. “Today I was the nail. I have 20 days now to be the hammer.”
Armstrong, who began the stage ahead of all his title rivals, lost about 45 seconds when he punctured in the penultimate sector of cobblestones.
“We were all just pulling through, really trying to gain as much time on Lance and the guys who were at the back,” explained Bradley Wiggins of Britain, who now has 41 seconds on Armstrong.
In the overall standings, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland leads Geraint Thomas by 23 seconds. Two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans is third, 39 seconds back, while Contador is ninth, 1:40 back. Andy Schleck is sixth, 1:19 back.
Armstrong, who is lagging 2:30 back, acknowledged that his chances of winning an eighth Tour de France were diminished.
“Our chances took a knock today,” Armstrong said. “I’m not going home, we’ll stay in the race and we’ll keep trying.”
If not for the flat, Armstrong would have probably finished in the same time as Contador.
[photogallerylink id=18288 align=left]Now trailing the Spaniard by 50 seconds, Armstrong will have to make up time on Contador in the Alps and the Pyrenees — a daunting challenge against one of the world’s best climbers.
“We just have to keep our heads up and to take our chances on the climbs,” said Armstrong, who is competing in his last Tour.
Contador almost crashed about 40 kilometers from the finish after missing a turn. He then rode the last 25 kilometers with the brake jammed against his rear wheel.
The slightly built Astana leader only rode on cobblestones for the first time this year and was expected to suffer during a stage he was fearing.
But he managed to lose only 1:13 to world champion Cadel Evans and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, two rivals he is likely to tame in high mountains.
“I knew that if I changed the bike would be much worse and I preferred to continue with the wheel braking,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up, but hey, we saved the day.”
Astana manager Yvon Sanquer didn’t hide his satisfaction and his relief after the stage.
“He has this capacity to control the race and an extreme motivation to stay well placed in the peloton and to fight,” Sanquer said about Contador. “This a good result. We lost a bit of time but we also gained time on other rivals.”
Andy Schleck’s brother Frank, who was considered as an outsider for the title, hurtled off his bike and onto the side of the road in the fourth run of cobbles. He did not get up, crouching in pain on the ground, and was taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken left collarbone.
After that spill, the pack splintered. Armstrong was in front of Contador after the fifth section, but the Spaniard’s group rumbled by him as the American waited for a change of tire.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I’m not going to make any excuses. I was in good position … there was the crash that split the group, we hung tough and tried to come back and just got a flat tire at the wrong moment.”
“A 45-second wheel change, and they’re gone, he added. “It was very difficult to come back.”
Armstrong had no hard feelings that the pack didn’t wait for him like it had on Monday, when he and several other top contenders crashed — prompting the Cancellara-led bunch to slow down.
“It’s pro bike racing, it’s dog eat dog,” Armstrong said. “One day you’re the peace maker and the rational mind, and the next day you’re taking advantage of every opportunity.”
Wednesday’s fourth stage is a 153.5-kilometer ride from Cambrai to the champagne capital Reims. This short trek doesn’t feature any major difficulty and looks tailor-made for sprinters.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.