Reporting from Arenberg, France — A punctured tire may have popped the balloon of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France chances Tuesday.
After an ill-timed flat left Armstrong pedaling furiously and ultimately alone, without a teammate left to lead him back to the front, the seven-time champion fell from fifth overall to 18th after the 132.36-mile Stage 3 from Wanze, Belgium, to the finish line here, the first in France.
Yet not even his ferocious efforts over the last few miles into this mining town — where dust covered the bikes and coated the faces of riders — could save him from dropping chunks of time to some of his main rivals. He is two minutes 30 seconds behind Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, who retook the yellow jersey and had won Saturday's prologue.
Tuesday's stage carried the peloton, already bruised from crash-filled racing, through an early spill that Armstrong managed to avoid and then through seven cobblestoned sections.
Armstrong had started the day ahead of defending champion Alberto Contador, 2009 runner-up Andy Schleck, Schleck's brother Frank and 2007 runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia. But that early crash took out Frank Schleck who, according to a team spokesman, broke his collarbone.
When the day was over, Armstrong not only had dropped 13 spots but was 50 seconds behind Contador.
Armstrong said about his chances of winning an eighth title in this final year of racing the Tour: "They dropped today, no doubt about it. We've got to keep our head up and take our chances on the climbs. It was bad luck today."
The Stage 3 winner was sprinter Thor Hushovd of Norway who rides for the Cervelo Test Team. Hushovd won in 4 hours 39.38 seconds. Overall leader Cancellara, of Saxo Bank, is 23 seconds ahead of Geraint Thomas of Great Britain and 39 seconds ahead of Evans.
When Armstrong was winning the Tour over and over starting in 1999, he always seemed to have luck on his side. He didn't get hurt during races, didn't have equipment problems or badly timed flat tires.
"Our chances took a knock today," Armstrong said, speaking not only for himself but for his RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer, who is 24th overall and 23 seconds behind Armstrong.
Armstrong had figured with his experience on the cobblestones and his quickness, he could pick up critical time on the leaders early in the race and before the mountain stages.
"We're not going home but it's very frustrating. I'm not going to make any excuses. We came in here today in good position. First there was a crash that split the group, we hung tough, and then got the flat tire right at the wrong moment. It's the nature of the sport. Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail. Today I was the nail."
While Frank Schleck, who beat Armstrong in last month's Tour de Suisse, had to withdraw, brother Andy fared far better Tuesday after falling hard on rain and oil-slicked roads Monday. He is sixth overall, 1:09 behind Cancellara. Evans is 39 seconds out of the lead, while ninth-place Contador is 1:40 out.
Armstrong said that when Frank Schleck crashed, a gap opened up. As he and his RadioShack teammates tried to chase down the lead group, things turned ugly on the sixth of the seven sections of cobblestones.
"I got the flat," he said. "A 45-second wheel change at that point was bad luck. For a little bit, [teammate Yaroslav] Popovych came back and gave me a hand but after the seventh section of cobblestones, I went at it alone. I was eating dirt. It's the nature of racing."
There probably won't be significant shuffling among the overall contenders before Saturday's first mountain stage that begins in Tournus, contains six rated climbs and finishes at a ski summit in the Alps, Station des Rousses.
Wednesday's fourth stage is 95.3 miles from Cambrai to Reims, the hub of the champagne-producing region. There are no cobblestones and no climbing, so it is a stage made for the sprinters. And for those aiming at the mountains to recover from the treacherous first days.