Thursday, July 13
Belgian Steels Stage Two
 By Andrew Hood
ABC Sports Online

LOUDON, France -- The first stages of the Tour de France are always hauntingly similar. Narrow roads, a nervous bunch and fast speeds inevitablly add up to disaster. Disaster didn't quite strike in Sunday's second stage, but it was close. U.S. Postal's Tyler Hamilton went down in a spill early and a major pileup was narrowly averted in the final frenetic charge to the line.
  Lance Armstrong and David Millar before Stage One on Sunday.

In the end, Hamilton was fine and Belgian Tom Steels won the bunch sprint as the Tour de France finally hit the road. Now it's a long three weeks all the way back to Paris, where the 87th Tour will end on the cobblestones of the Champs Elysees on July 23.

It was a close call for Hamilton, who went down hard in a crash in the Tour's second stage last year.

"It was of those things when everyone's going 55 km/h, then everyone's locking up, and I got my handlebars around someone's rear wheel and the next thing you know I was doing an endo into a Festina rider. I'm just a little shaken up. It could have been a lot worse," said Hamilton, one of defending champion Lance Armstrong's key helpers.

Hamilton suffered a minor concussion last year when he crashed on the Passage du Gois, a narrow causeway covered under water during high tide.

"Last year I had a big cut on my eye and a concussion. I'll take my crash today over last year's."

So far, so good in Tour 2000. With Scot David Millar in the yellow jersey, the French Cofidis team worked hard to reel in a two-man breakaway early in the race. Armstrong and the rest of the U.S. Postal team could just sit back and watch Cofidis do much of the work.

"Maybe those two seconds were a blessing in disguise. Tomorrow will look a lot like today, do as a little work as possible. Hopefully Cofidis will control it and we can get through the day and have a solid team time trial ride," Hamilton said. "It was really windy most of the day and everyone was a little bit nervous. We had Cofidis at the front, so it was nice. It took the pressure off us."

Millar's hold on the race lead continued for another day. The 23-year-old Scot is the revelation of Tour 2000. Racing in his first Tour, he's cycling's great hope for Great Britain.

"Millar is a nice winner for the Tour. He's a young guy and he prepared especially for the prologue," said Johan Bruyneel, directeur sportif of the U.S. Postal Service team. "Sometimes a surprise is nice for the race because it's always the favorites who win it's too boring."

Armstrong greeted Millar at the start line with a smile and a handshake. Millar said he's quickly becoming accustomed to having the yellow jersey, even though he admitted he couldn't fall asleep until 2 a.m. and kept the jersey hanging on a chair so it would be the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning.

"I'm starting to get a grip," Millar said. "I was pretty emotional when I first got it but I got used to it fairly quickly. It's a wonderful experience and I hope it lasts as long as possible."

Early Sunday morning, the media crush was on. At the Tour de France, everyone wants to get a piece of the man in the yellow jersey. Journalists, camera crews, photographers, autograph seekers and not to mention a few groupies camp in the front of every Tour race leader, regardless of who it is.

Last year, Armstrong was the man in yellow for much of the race. And save for two seconds in Saturday's opening stage, the ensuing chaos would have been in front of the U.S. Postal Service team bus.

Instead they were chasing Millar. Born in Scotland but raised for much of his life in Hong Kong, Millar is racing in his first Tour. Articulate and fluent in French, he's quickly becoming the story of the Tour.

"He's young and exciting. He likes speed and danger. He's really the great hope of cycling in Britain," said Jeremy Whittle, editor of ProCycling. "Everyone's watching him very closely."

Millar is not a threat for the overall victory. His Cofidis team will fight as long as possible to keep the lead, but Tuesday's 70-km (43-mile) team time trial will shake up the overall standings.

"The confidence of the team is very good," Bruyneel said of the U.S. Postal Service. "We analyzed all the split times of the team from Saturday, because that's a good indication of the form of everybody, and in balance Lance comes out on top. As usual, the first prologue isn't something that's decisive. It shows the form and it's a warning to everyone else."

With cycling's paparazzi chasing Millar, Armstrong and the Posties, other riders enjoyed a quiet day in the saddle.

"It's a more relaxed situation. We're actually in a better position because we don't have the yellow jersey. We don't have the pressure of carrying the race," said Bruyneel. "We don't have the weight and pressure of the yellow jersey."

Early in the stage, Rabobank's Erik Dekker and Frenchman Jacky Durand on Lotto pulled away and built up a 3-minute lead 50 kms into the 194-km (120-mile) stage from Futuroscope to Loudun.

Cofidis worked hard to bring them back and with 5 kms to go, a short-lived attack came from Jens Voigt and Salvatore Commesso. Then the sprinter's teams lined up in earnest. Steels charged off the front and held off the fastest men in the business. American champion Fred Rodriguez, racing in his first Tour, gave a helping hand to Steels and the Mapei team.

"I tried to keep Tom out of the wind as much as possible," Rodriguez said. "That's all I could do because I have some stomach problems. I'm really glad that Tom won today because he a had a few days of being sick himself so we're really glad to see that he's already flying. I'll be helping Tom the next few days and now that we see he has the legs, it gives us motivation to get to the front and give him faster leadouts."

The sprint finish gave Steels the victory ahead of Stuart O'Grady, an Australian on the Credit Agricole team. After racing for nearly five hours on the bike, the margin of victory was just 5 centimeters.

"I had a short run to the finish because I don't have the legs right now. I'm pleased to get second because that shows I'm coming around," O'Grady said. "I'm going to make a run for the points jersey."

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain. This will be his fifth Tour de France.

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