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Armstrong Waits Patiently to Make His Move

Cycling: Three-time winner is comfortably in fifth place with mountains looming next week. Zabel takes lead.

July 10, 2002|KEITH RICHBURG | WASHINGTON POST

PARIS — There have been three stages and the yellow leader's jersey twice has changed hands. There has been excitement with some last-minute sprinting duels. But so far, the Tour de France's overall favorite and three-time defending champion, Lance Armstrong, has yet to make his move.

Armstrong ended Tuesday's stage, at Reims in Northeastern France, comfortably in fifth place overall. And Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team is content to protect him by riding near the front of the pack.

That could change soon. Today, the Tour moves through France's picturesque champagne region, starting in Epernay, home to some of the world's best-known champagne houses. The route winds through vineyards before ending in Chateau-Thierry, where Joan of Arc lived. The course will include a demanding team trial--the first chance for U.S. Postal, and Spanish opponent ONCE, to face off.

Tuesday, however, belonged to the sprinters. Erik Zabel, a German who is a longtime sprint leader, claimed the yellow jersey from Switzerland's Rubens Bertogliati, who held it for three days. And the stage was won by Australian Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Adecco, after a last-minute dash to the finish.

The last time McEwen won a Tour stage was at the finish in Paris three years ago. After Tuesday's win, he said: "the greatest day in my career was on the Champs-Elysee in 1999, but this is my best win this season."

Zabel, who finished second but still beat McEwen by eight seconds overall, was equally content. "This is a great day for me and my team," he said.

The yellow jersey has now switched from Armstrong, who won Saturday's prologue in Luxembourg, to Bertogliati to Zabel. And following the pattern set in previous tours, Armstrong has been content to stay at the front of the pack in these early stages, conserving his energy and building points until the Tour reaches the mountains, where he dominates.

This year's Tour, shorter than in the past, will see two grueling mountain stretches, the first when it enters the Pyrenees for two days July 18, and then the Alps for three days starting July 23.

Because last year the mountain stages came early in the race and Armstrong emerged far ahead of the pack, critics complained that there was little suspense left for the remaining week of the Tour. So this time the race emerges from the Alps only three days before the finale on the Champs-Elysee, meaning the outcome could be in doubt longer than in the past.

There will also be a tough individual time trial July 27.

Few cycling observers doubt Armstrong can win his fourth consecutive Tour, particularly after his chief competitor, Jan Ullrich, was sidelined by a knee injury.

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Mario Cipollini, citing bitterness at not being invited to the Tour de France this year as one of the reasons, has decided to retire from cycling, according to a statement released late Tuesday on his official Web site.

The 35-year-old Italian is enjoying one of his most successful seasons as he won six stages of the Giro d'Italia and the Milan-San Remo classic and the Gand-Wevelgem race.

Cipollini cited "the bitterness of not being able to compete for victory," and frustration with his team sponsors to explain what "leads me to take this drastic decision to say enough with cycling."

It was not clear if Cipollini planned to retire immediately or after the racing season.

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Associated Press contributed to this report

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Highlights from the third stage of the Tour de France:

STAGE: A 108.19-mile run from Metz to Reims.

WINNER: Australia's Robbie McEwen, of Lotto, in 4 hours, 13 minutes, 17 seconds.

HOW OTHERS FARED: Telekom rider Erik Zabel of Germany was second and took the overall leader's yellow jersey. Defending champion Lance Armstrong was 33rd, dropping to fifth overall.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "We're going to leave the champagne tonight for the coaching staff of Telekom, out of respect for tomorrow's team time trial. No champagne for me tonight." -- Zabel, on reluctance to celebrate too much just yet.

NEXT STAGE: A 41.85-mile team time trial.

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