Associated Press WriterREIMS, France (AP) -- Australia's Robbie McEwen used a closing sprint to win the third stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday, as three-time champion Lance Armstrong slipped to fifth place in the overall standings after finishing in the main pack.
McEwen, of the Lotto-Adecco team, covered the 108.2-mile stage through the flat wheatfields of eastern France between Metz and Reims in 4 hours, 13 minutes and 17 seconds. He raised his arms, fists clenched, as he crossed the line for his first stage win at the Tour since claiming the final leg in Paris in 1999.
Germany's Erik Zabel, a sprint specialist with the Telekom team, finished second and claimed the leader's yellow jersey from Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati, who had held it for two days.
"This is a great day for me and my team," Zabel told France-2 Television.
Armstrong, of the U.S. Postal Service team, finished shortly after McEwen, and dropped from fourth to fifth in the overall standings. Armstrong opened his bid for a fourth straight title by winning the time-trial prologue.
During the second stage on Monday, while many around him crashed or cramped, Armstrong rode just as he planned, breezing through a forested region of western Germany under a scorching sun. He finished 61st, slipping to fourth place overall.
"I was surprised by the huge crowds; I was impressed," Armstrong said.
Spain's Oscar Freire won the 112-mile stage and Bertogliati retained the leader's jersey for a second day.
Thousands lined the route between Luxembourg and Saarbruecken, many cheering Zabel. One woman had "Zabel" written on her stomach in his team's pink colors.
U.S. Postal officials said the team was sticking to its strategy of protecting Armstrong and riding in the front of the pack, where accidents are less likely, in the early stages. The Texan intends to step it up a notch in the later mountain stages, one of his many strengths.
"It was nervous today, but quite easy," Armstrong said.
Some who sought to push the pace in the relatively flat stage ran into trouble.
Norway's Thor Hushovd shared the lead for much of the day but finished last after stopping several times to nurse a leg cramp. At one point, he hunched over his handlebars in pain and had to have his thigh massaged by a trainer. He struggled to the finish 19 minutes after the main pack.
There were four crashes, one involving Armstrong teammate Benoit Joachim, who wasn't seriously hurt. Spain's Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel injured his right knee and right elbow in a crash and was taken to a hospital in Saarbruecken for X-rays.
Freire spoiled Zabel's homecoming in a sprint in the final few yards. Freire, the world road champion, sped over the line just ahead of Zabel and a pack of 176 other riders.
Freire finished in 4 hours, 19 minutes, 51 seconds, the same time as the main pack. McEwen placed second while Zabel, who wore the green jersey awarded to the Tour's fastest sprinter, was third.
"To return to my country in the green jersey, it's still not too bad," he said.
Bertogliati finished 29th but kept the yellow jersey he took from Armstrong on Sunday. Armstrong had lost the yellow jersey only once before -- in 1999, the year of his first Tour victory.