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Armstrong cedes lead at Tour De France
Updated: 2004-07-09 09:12

Lance Armstrong gave up two things at the Tour de France on Thursday: the yellow jersey and a chance to ride at the Athens Olympics.

Surrendering the jersey was a tactical move. Armstrong, bidding for a record sixth straight Tour de France title, willingly ceded the overall lead — for now — to Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. The Texan knows he must conserve strength for the brutal stages ahead.

Overall leader Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, adjusts his helmet before the start of the 5th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Amiens, northern France, and Chartres, west of Paris, Thursday, July 8, 2004.[AP]

Armstrong finished 24th and dropped to sixth overall — 9 minutes, 35 seconds off Voeckler's pace.

As for next month's Olympics, Armstrong wants to return home to his children after months away training for cycling's toughest test. He knew his heart wouldn't be in the Summer Games.

"I've done the Olympics many times and if I don't have 100 percent motivation for something that's an important event, a very important event, then I don't want to take somebody else's spot," he said.

In training for the Tour, Armstrong said he had spent five months away from his son, Luke, and twins Grace and Isabelle.

"It's really hard to do and so I want to go home," said Armstrong, the bronze medalist at the 2000 Sydney Games, his best showing in three Olympic appearances.

The decision to concede Thursday's fifth stage was part of Armstrong's grand strategy in this three-week ordeal. When the Tour veers into the Alps and climaxes with a punishing time trial, Armstrong wants to be ready.

Until then, Armstrong is willing to let second-tier riders like Voeckler and his Brioches La Boulangere team shoulder the pressure that goes with the leader. Armstrong is confident he'll have overtaken them by the time the race finishes in Paris on July 25.

"Tactically, it's a great move for us with Brioches La Boulangere in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said. "Voeckler is a good young rider. He's French and I think it's a good thing."

With wind-swept rain and crashes troubling riders, Armstrong and his US Postal Service team decided not to chase as Voeckler and four other riders broke away from the main pack.

Armstrong said he believed Voeckler may be able to defend the lead into the Pyrenees at the end of the second week, but he expects the Frenchman to buckle under the race's grueling demands.

"A team like Brioches will work really hard to defend," Armstrong said. But "we're confident with the gap where it is. This bike race is so much different from any other race, the intensity of the climbs is a lot greater than anything."

Voeckler acknowledged he's no match for cycling's dominant rider.

"Oh, I don't think he's worried about me," he said.

Australia's Stuart O'Grady of Cofidis, who escaped the pack with Voeckler and three others, won Thursday's stage, a 124.6-mile trek from Amiens to Chartres.

O'Grady dedicated the stage victory to his team, which has been embroiled in a doping scandal that led Tour organizers to ban British star David Millar.

"It's just been an emotional roller-coaster," O'Grady said. "We really needed this win."

The breakaway riders finished 12:33 ahead of Armstrong and the pack.

Mishaps such as flat tires, derailed chains and spills on rain-soaked roads marred much of the course along bucolic wheat fields and rolling hills west of Paris.

Voeckler, riding in his third Tour, epitomized how fickle the race can be from one day to the next. He entered the stage three minutes behind Armstrong in 59th place.

At one point, the breakaway riders built a 17-minute lead. They included France's Sandy Casar, Denmark's Jakob Piil and Sweden's Magnus Backstedt, at 220 pounds the Tour's heaviest rider. O'Grady once said that trailing Backstedt was like riding behind a truck.

Armstrong said his team, which had given him the overall lead just a day earlier in a time trial, deserved a breather.

"I kept telling them they wouldn't have to work for a week, and so they probably were happy to hear that," he said.

Armstrong is mostly concerned about Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, and challengers like Italy's Ivan Basso of CSC and Phonak's Tyler Hamilton of the United States.

Ullrich trails the Texan by 55 seconds, a significant but not insurmountable gap. But Armstrong said he wouldn't want to be in the German's position.

"A minute's a lot in my opinion," he said. "The only reason that I say that is that if I reverse the roles, I would be thinking, 'Oh, man, I'm already a minute down.'"

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