Leader's fall lands Armstrong atop Tour

Six-time winner benefits from Zabriskie's late crash

July 06, 2005|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BLOIS, France - With head down and legs pumping, David Zabriskie sped through the winding streets of this town of 50,000 on the Loire River yesterday, seemingly on his way to retaining the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and keeping his renowned countryman, Lance Armstrong, at bay for at least another day.

But with the finish line less than a mile ahead, disaster struck: Zabriskie crashed at more than 30 mph. He staggered to his feet, his left arm and leg bloody, and using a replacement bike, he wobbled as he tried to get started again, then got a push and finished the race.

Zabriskie, an unassuming 26-year-old from Salt Lake City, had worn the coveted leader's shirt since Saturday's opening stage of the classic race. Going into yesterday's team time trial, he led Armstrong by 2 seconds.

"He may have been elbowed by a spectator," said Bryan Nygaard, a spokesman for Zabriskie's CSC team, though an Outdoor Life Network video seemed to show his front wheel touched the wheel of another bike.

Whatever the cause, the damage was done: Zabriskie had lost his overall lead, and Armstrong's Discovery Channel team went on to win the fourth stage by 2 seconds over CSC. That gave Armstrong the yellow jersey for the first time in this year's tour as he seeks an unprecedented seventh straight victory before retiring.

"It's always nice to be in yellow," said Armstrong, 33. "But there are three or four flat stages coming, so it will not be easy to defend the jersey."

In the team time trial, each nine-man team rides as a single-file unit, with members taking turns in the lead to ensure fresh legs and lungs.

The time for each team's fifth-best finisher is recognized as its official result, and is added to the individuals' overall totals. There is only one team time trial in the 21-stage, 2,240-mile tour.

The dramatic outcome gave Armstrong a 55-second overall lead over his teammate, George Hincapie. German Jens Voight of CSC is third and American Bobby Julich, also of CSC, is fourth.

Zabriskie, who dropped to ninth, was taken by ambulance to a hospital for X-rays of his left knee, elbow and rib cage. No fractures were found, and Nygaard said Zabriskie would ride today's 113.7-mile stage between the chateau town of Chambord and Montargis, an industrial center south of Paris. The other pre-race favorites are now dangerously far behind Armstrong.

Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, a member of the T-Mobile team, is seventh. Five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany, also of T-Mobile, is 14th.

Armstrong called this time trial "stressful." Though he gained fewer seconds than he might have in the mountains, the team victory was seen as a psychological boost.

There were whispers that Discovery - missing Viatcheslav Ekimov, who hurt his back this spring, and Floyd Landis, who abandoned Armstrong's team last fall to become a leader of Phonak - was vulnerable this year.

But Discovery's two new members, Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych and Italian Paolo Savoldelli, stepped up. "Popo was unbelievable. That kid is a gamer. He was flying. I think he performed his role with a bit of Eki's spirit," Armstrong said, referring to the injured Ekimov.

CSC had led Armstrong's team at both of the timing checkpoints along 41.9 miles from Tours to Blois, and seemed to be in a strong position before Zabriskie's spill.

CSC sports director Bjarn Riis called it "tragic" for his team.

"It was completely bad luck," he said. "We are the most unlucky team. We were so close to winning this stage that we wanted more than anything. I thought that it was luck for Discovery Channel to win. And Dave Zabriskie is a devastated young man. He said all of a sudden someone elbowed him. We don't know."

Discovery Channel finished the 41.9-mile race from Tours in 1 hour, 10 minutes, 39 seconds, setting a team time trial record with an average speed of 35.54 mph. The old record was 34.06 mph by Gewiss, a Swiss team, in 1995.

"The team time trial is a very passionate event, a very hard event," Armstrong said. "At the end, everybody is on the limit, everybody is a little bit cross-eyed. You come into the city, there are lots of turns and you get the whipping wind and it's easy to make a mistake. So I can clearly see how it happened for Dave, but it's also clearly a bad one for him."

The first question asked of Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel was whether Discovery would fight hard to keep Armstrong in yellow from now until the final stage July 24.

Bruyneel said that winning the time trial offered him more options now. "The advantage is, we have a lot of guys in good position," he said. "We may try to keep the jersey, but it may not be Lance in it every day."

Such an effort would be tremendously energy-sapping, given that the ultimate finish probably will be determined in the mountain stages beginning next week in the Alps.

"We'll think about it," Armstrong said. "But there's no point in wearing everybody out before the mountains."

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