SEDAN (France): After a shaky start to the Tour de France, four-times champion Lance Armstrong spent a much more comfortable time in the 204km second stage won by Australian sprinter Baden Cooke yesterday.
The bunch, still shocked by the crash that forced American Levi Leipheimer out of the race with a hip injury on Sunday, took it easy on a hot day and had plenty of time to admire the Champagne vineyards along the road before the final sprint.
The champagne finally went to Cooke, who outsprinted France’s Jean-Patrick Nazon and Estonia’s Jan Kirsipuu to give Australia its second stage victory of the race.
“It’s unbelievable. I stayed behind Kirsipuu, who looked strong. I made my move and I won,” said Cooke.
For Cooke, victory was all the sweeter as he had been criticised by fellow sprinters for being dangerous after he was involved in a bad crash in the Dauphine Libere shortly before the Tour.
“Obviously, since the Dauphine crash, I knew that I'd be blamed for any crash. So for sure there are guys who blamed me for Sunday’s fall. But I was not anywhere near,” he said.
Compatriot and FDJeux.com teammate Bradley McGee, winner of Saturday’s prologue, retained his overall leader’s yellow jersey.
Both riders from Down Under said the mood in the team was the reason for FDJeux.com's current success.
“There's a great atmosphere in the team. It's necessary on the Tour.
“With the stress and weariness, if something goes wrong a team can split if the atmosphere is not right,” McGee said.
Armstrong, hoping to raise his Cup a record-equalling fifth time on July 27 in the Champs Elysees, kept out of trouble after being involved in the nasty pile-up which marred the finish of the previous stage in Meaux.
“It’s fine now,” he told a scrum of journalists before the start of the stage in La Ferte-sous-Jouarre.
“I just bruised my lower back but I put some ice on it and I had a good night,” he added.
On the starting podium, the Texan offered encouragement to former teammate Tyler Hamilton, who, with Leipheimer, was the most seriously hurt rider in the crash.
Hamilton, who had high expectations for the race as the leader of the CSC team, decided to continue despite a broken collarbone.
The gentle pace allowed him to finish the stage not too far from the main bunch.
“My shoulder is very painful. But I owe it to myself to try and carry on,” Hamilton told reporters before the start of the ride to Sedan.
“Our therapist worked on it a lot last night because the muscles around the collarbone were extremely tight.”
To avoid the same fate, Armstrong, who had been spared crashes and mechanical incidents since returning from a near fatal cancer to win his first Tour in 1999, has made special plans.
US Postal team sources explained that time trial Olympic champion Viatcheslav Ekimov and Czech Pavel Padrnos had been asked to act as bodyguards and keep him out of trouble in the usually tense first stages of the race.
The defending champion also had a disappointing prologue, finishing seventh behind McGee, who now has held his overall leader’s yellow jersey for three days.
While Armstrong could relax a bit, sprinters again had the final say and while Italian Alessandro Petacchi, winner of the first stage, was quickly dropped, Cooke made his move to win his third victory of the season.
Today's 167.5km third stage to St Dizier should again favour sprinters but most teams will be gearing up for tomorrow’s team time trial which is defending champion Armstrong’s first big objective in this Tour. – Reuters