NEVERS (France): Lance Armstrong enjoyed the relative anonymity of runner-up in the suffocating heat of the 196.5km fifth stage of the Tour de France, won by sprint maestro Alessandro Petacchi yesterday.
Second overall behind team mate Victor Hugo Pena, the American, looking for a record-equalling fifth win on July 27, let the first Colombian leader of the Tour take the spotlight and the headlines.
“It's never easy. Stages like today's are long, hot, hilly and sometimes windy. It's never easy,” the Texan said before the start in Troyes.
Easy it was not, especially for the riders who tried to break away on the Burgundy roads, who were outrun at the finish by the new Italian sprint sensation.
Winner of Sunday's first stage in Meaux and Tuesday's third in St Dizier, Petacchi surged ahead of the bunch in the last hundred metres to leave his rivals in his wake.
Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu was second and Australian Baden Coke, winner of the second stage, was third.
Armstrong, whose US Postal team crushed the opposition in Wednesday's 69km team time trial, stayed quietly out of trouble under the escort of his team mates and finished within the main bunch, with the same time as Petacchi.
In the morning, around the US Postal team bus, the same atmosphere of excitement prevailed as when Armstrong was leading the Tour in the last four years.
But this time, the centre of attention was not the team leader, but Pena.
After Wednesday's team effort, the Bogota rider became the first Colombian cyclist to hold the coveted yellow jersey and a big cake had been prepared to celebrate both the feat and his 29th birthday.
“We had been looking for this team time trial win for four years and failed. I can tell you we had a good time last night,” said Armstrong's closest aide George Hincapie.
Surrounded by American fans and autograph seekers, Armstrong made it clear that his team would not fight to keep Pena's yellow jersey, the aim being to take it in Paris on the final day, rather than in Nevers.
“We'll adapt to the circumstances. But if there's a breakaway, we will not move,” Armstrong warned before the start.
The US Postal team did not.
Frenchmen Nicolas Jalabert, Ludovic Turpin and Frederic Finot, Hungary's Laszlo Bodrogi and German Jens Voigt parted company with the main group early on.
They were caught by the leading sprinters in the bunch, however, who did not want to miss one their last chances to fight for glory before the mountains.
They will have another opportunity in today's 230km sixth stage to Lyon and Petacchi will once again be the man to beat. – Reuters