Tour de France: Armstrong could let yellow slip away ahead of crucial stages

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– Lance Armstrong could afford to show his charitable side after the fifth stage of the Tour de France here Wednesday where Australian Robbie McEwen finally got to show his sprinting prowess ahead of Belgian ace Tom Boonen.

However the 33-year-old Texan, who led his Discovery Channel team to a rather lucky victory in the team time trial on Tuesday, will be hard pushed to be as calm when the race goes over some tricky terrain this weekend.

Armstrong’s team handed him the yellow jersey only after a dramatic crash involving the CSC team’s time trial specialist David Zabriskie on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old was wearing the yellow jersey at the time, and ended up losing it by two seconds after he rode lamely over the finish line dripping blood from various cuts on his body.

On Wednesday Armstrong spent his first time in the race lead, but the American – who seems to provoke either love or hatred in the peloton – appeared at the start line not wearing it, apparently in a bid to pay hommage to Zabriskie.

The sporting gesture has been made before on the race, the last time being when another American, Greg Lemond, refused to wear the yellow jersey in 1991 after Denmark’s Rolf Sorensen crashed 10km from the finish line in one of the early stages.

On that occasion and despite Lemond being second in the general classification, race organisers allowed the American his request not to wear the jersey as a mark of respect for Sorensen, who had to abandon the race.

However Armstrong’s bid to copy Lemond’s sporting gesture fell on deaf ears – given that Zabriskie is still in the race, it was an understandable decision on the part of the organisers.

“After watching the race last night I realised that David (Zabriskie) was really unlucky,” Armstrong said after the stage finish, in what was perceived as a somewhat belated attempt to further boost his image.

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc soon put Armstrong in his place, and he ended up riding the stage wearing both the yellow jersey and his Discovery Channel top.

“There was no negotiating,” added Armstrong. He (Leblanc) said, ‘if you don’t start with that jersey, you don’t start (the race) tomorrow’.

“It didn’t feel right to take the jersey on someone else’s misfortune, but Jean-Marie had other ideas.”

Armstrong’s gesture might have looked good on paper, but it didn’t sit well with everyone in the peloton.

“It’s disgusting what Armstrong tried to make out of this incident with the yellow jersey,” said Frenchman Carlos Da Cruz, who rides for the Francaise des Jeux team and, given Armstrong’s past tactics with detractors, could come in for some unwanted attention.

Armstrong could willingly give up the jersey to a rider who is not a threat to his bid for a seventh consecutive crown in the coming days, but Saturday will be a different story.

The race’s eighth and ninth stages in the east of France this weekend, with a brief foray into Germany, go over some of the trickiest climbs on the race.

They’re not the hardest but could be perfect terrain for an impromptu attack by the likes of T-Mobile’s Alexandre Vinokourov, the closest of his main rivals for the yellow jersey who is seventh overall at only 1min 21secs.

For Tour de France great Raymond Poulidor, who made a career of having accidents and mishaps that led to him never winning the race but being on the podium nine times, it could be a key weekend.

“It’s the only stages of what we would call the smaller mountain stages where Armstrong could encounter a few problems, since his team will come under attack from riders with a few ambitions,” he said.

“Sometimes in the smaller mountain stages you can do more damage than on a high mountain stage. Armstrong will already be on his guard.”

McEwen meanwhile claimed his first stage of the race following his disqualification from the third stage in Tours for some headbutting with his Aussie compatriot Stuart O’Grady.

The 33-year-old Davitamon rider who is based in Belgium has had to succumb to the power of Quick Step star Boonen since the Tour started but managed to finally overhaul the Belgian with a powerful surge after sitting on the 24-year-old’s wheel as they sped towards the finish line.

“You could say it’s a little bit of revenge for the past few days. I was frustrated and I’m still unhappy about the disqualifying decision,” said McEwen.

However McEwen, a winner of the sprinters’ main prize in 2002 and 2004, is defiant.

“Just because I won, I haven’t changed my mind about the other day. I’ve watched the pictures again in slow motion and I’m supported by other people who know what they’re talking about.

“Sean Kelly, who won the (green) jersey four times, agreed with me and Eddy Merckx has also said there was nothing in it.

“It’s put a pretty big hole in the green jersey competition – it’s not going to be as interesting as it has been in the past few years.”