NAMUR, Belgium -- Lance Armstrong has no doubts about the
risks that lurk in the next stage of the Tour de France: If luck
goes against him, he says, his drive for a record sixth straight
win could be over almost before it's begun.
One of the obstacles for the five-time champion will be
bone-shaking cobblestone paths that some riders say shouldn't even
be part of cycling's showcase race.
The paths are bumpy, unsettling and treacherous when wet -- in
short, a recipe for crashes.
"Everybody is worried," the 32-year-old Texan said Monday.
"It's always dangerous. You have to be in the front. If you get
stuck behind a crash or something like that then you could almost
say that your Tour is finished."
Armstrong is fourth overall, 18 seconds behind overall leader
Thor Hushovd of Norway. He finished 85th in Monday's 122-mile
second stage from Charleroi to Namur in Belgium, with a small
detour into neighboring France.
So far, Armstrong seems pleased, saying his team "is maybe the
best one we've had." But the competition is perhaps the toughest
"The field is full," said Armstrong, who won't look to take
the lead until later in the three-week race. "The course is tough,
but I think the competition will be deeper than other years."
Armstrong's biggest rival, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, is a
mere 15 seconds back. He finished 38th in the second stage, with
the same time as Armstrong. He looks lean and hungry -- a fact
Armstrong played down.
"He always looks good at the Tour," said Armstrong. "The way
somebody looks doesn't really mean much.
"Jan falls into the trap of people always judging the way he
looks. 'Is he fat? Is he skinny?' That's what they always say."
The two cobblestone sections Tuesday come in the second half of
the mostly flat 130-mile stage from Waterloo to the northern French
town of Wasquehal.
They are fueling worries after two nervous days of crashes and
high-speed sprints. The relatively flat early stages provide a
chance for glory for sprinters who have no real hope of winning the
Tour title when it ends in Paris on July 25.
The speedsters include Australia's Robbie McEwen, who dashed to
victory in a mass sprint at the end of Monday's stage.
In finishes like that, Armstrong and the other riders who wait
until the mountain stages to make their move do their best just
avoid any spills.
Armstrong summed up the early stages succinctly: "Very fast,
very nervous, dangerous finishes."
"It's really stressful. In the last 20 to 30 kilometers [15 to
20 miles] the pace really picks up and everybody fights," said
American Levi Leipheimer, who is 13th overall. "All etiquette is
out the door. You do what you can -- you scratch and bite and do
The first cobblestone section Tuesday runs for 1.7 miles. The
second, 15 miles from the finish, is nearly three-quarters of a
mile long and also forms part of the Paris-Roubaix race, a grueling
classic known as "The Hell of the North."
Punctures, crashes, crowds are all potential hazards. Lighter
riders like Armstrong risk being thrown around. Dirk Demol,
assistant sporting director for Armstrong's squad, said the
cobblestones should not be on the route.
"It's too risky," he said.
But Armstrong said he understands why the sections have been
"Some people's Tour will be finished," he said. "I could be
one of those people, and I'm not dumb enough to think that I
couldn't be. And that would be a shame.
"But at the same time, the cobbles are a big part of French
cycling," he added. "If you look at Paris-Roubaix, they are a
beautiful thing, if you look at it like that, you should say they
should be part of the Tour."
Armstrong said his team has scouted out the hazardous sections
and he has ridden them.
To keep the champion safe in the fast first stages, his U.S.
Postal Service squad generally designates two teammates to stay
with him each day, Postal veteran George Hincapie said.
Hincapie, competing in his ninth Tour, and Viatcheslav Ekimov, a
Russian on his 14th Tour, take over the bodyguard role for final 12
miles, when the pack is speeding to the line.
"We keep him out of the wind, keep him from going too far
behind, just keep him in a good position all day -- with as little
energy expenditure as possible," said Hincapie, 86th on Monday
Armstrong rival Tyler Hamilton, who broke his collarbone in a
crash on the second day of last year's Tour, says he would not have
included the cobblestones had he designed the route.
"But that's what bike racing is all about, different terrain,
mountains, flat stages, crosswinds and, this year, cobblestones,"
said Hamilton, who has ordered wider tires with extra grip to be
fitted for his team Tuesday.
"We'll obviously try to stay toward the front and try to stay
upright," he said. "Our goal for that day is just safety."