U.S. team in position for Alps test

Friday, July 11, 2003

NEVERS, France -- Lance Armstrong's team has plenty of champagne in stock.

But while the four-time champion is in good position for another Tour de France victory, he is not about to start popping corks with more than two weeks of racing left.

The Texan remained in second place overall behind teammate Victor Hugo Pena, playing it safe and finishing 53rd in Thursday's fifth stage of cycling's showcase event.

Alessandro Petacchi, an Italian proving to be the sprint king of this centennial Tour, took the stage. It was his third stage victory in five days.

Armstrong is preserving his strength for the mountains, using his U.S. Postal Service teammates to shield him from accidents -- a clear risk in the flat and fast early races.

"We're in good shape," teammate George Hincapie said. "Our main strategy is to keep Lance out of trouble, and let him do the least work possible. Keep him out of trouble and out of the wind."

Armstrong was sandwiched between teammates Hincapie (52nd) and Pavel Padrnos (54th) in the 122.03-mile race to Nevers. In the overall standings, U.S. Postal holds the top eight spots.

"It worked out well today," teammate Floyd Landis said. "We didn't have to push too hard or do too much work."

The team routed its rivals in time trials Wednesday when squads raced against the clock. The win, the team's first in the event, put Armstrong 38 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, and three minutes ahead of Gilberto Simoni, winner of this year's Giro d'Italia.

A mountain showdown

Simoni is strong in the mountains, but so is Armstrong. The Italian will have trouble making up the lost time in the Alps' painful climbs that begin Saturday.

"Three minutes, that's important -- that's a big slide," U.S. Postal sporting director Johan Bruyneel said.

Pena took the leader's yellow jersey Wednesday and kept it Thursday, his 29th birthday.

"It's the best birthday present I've had," he said. "I feel like I'm living in a dream."

Pena, the first Colombian to lead the Tour in the race's 100-year history, is a second ahead of Armstrong because he was that much faster in the first race, a sprint through Paris last Saturday.

As leader, Pena received a gift of his body weight in champagne from the town of Troyes on Thursday, where the stage started, organizers said. Pena weighs about 154 pounds.

U.S. Postal staff loaded about a dozen boxes of the sparkling wine aboard its bus. It surely will come in handy if Armstrong wins in Paris on July 27, equaling the feat of five straight victories by Spain's Miguel Indurain.

"We have to be prepared for the mountains and not get overexcited," Hincapie said. "It's wonderful to put time over our rivals, but the mountains are a whole different story."

At the finish in Nevers, Petacchi beat Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia and Baden Cooke of Australia with a burst in the last 200 yards.

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