Armstrong, leader Di Luca spark protest

MILAN -- Lance Armstrong already has a tenuous relationship with Tour de France organizers. Now his rapport with the Giro d'Italia appears at risk, too.

Armstrong played an integral role in a protest by riders over concerns about the safety of the ninth stage of the Giro on Sunday. As a result, all 190 riders were given the same time as winner Mark Cavendish.

"We saw in the first lap that the course wasn't safe," said overall leader Danilo Di Luca. "There were cars parked in the middle of the road, traffic islands and tram lines. We asked the organizers to annul the times and we're happy that they granted our request."

Several riders acknowledged that Armstrong had a hand in organizing the protest, and race director Angelo Zomegnan was livid.

"This circuit required explosive bursts. It required riders to get their butts up off the seats of their bikes, and some riders who are not so young anymore apparently don't feel like doing that," Zomegnan said. "Instead, it seems like their legs have become shorter and their tongues longer."

Asked by The Associated Press if he was referring to the 37-year-old Armstrong, Zomegnan replied, "I never name people who have disappointed me, just like I don't name girlfriends that have snubbed me."

Cavendish clocked 4 hours, 16 minutes, 13 seconds over the 102.5-mile leg. Allan Davis crossed second and Tyler Farrar was third.

Di Luca holds a 13-second lead over Thomas Lovkvist in the overall standings, with Michael Rogers third, 44 seconds back, and Armstrong's Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer is fourth, 51 seconds behind.

Armstrong is 25th overall, 4:39 behind Di Luca.

Aware that he wouldn't lose any time, Armstrong dropped off the back of the pack with 10 miles to go. Di Luca and Ivan Basso's Liquigas team soon followed suit.

Armstrong has acknowledged that RCS Sport is paying him a significant sum to race the Giro for the first time, and until the Texan began criticizing several stage finishes as overly dangerous a few days ago, Zomegnan and the RCS-controlled Gazzetta dello Sport were his biggest cheerleaders.

Armstrong is also leading a protest against his Astana team, which has not paid its riders for two months. He and seven teammates rode with the sponsor names on their jerseys faded out for a third consecutive day.

Armstrong himself said the group was "livid" with the lengthy seventh stage Friday that concluded with a dangerous and steep descent through the rain.

The mood of the group grew even more cautious after Spanish rider Pedro Horillo Munoz ended up in a coma after falling 60 yards off the side of the road on a downhill stretch Saturday.

Horillo Munoz was woken from a 24-hour coma on Sunday. He was able to move his legs and speak with doctors at a hospital in Bergamo, race organizers said.

Riders made 11 laps on a circuit through cobble-stoned streets in the center of Milan on Sunday, passing directly in front of RCS's offices.

Three riders -- Francesco Reda, Markus Fothen and Serafin Martinez Acevedo -- fell during the first lap and riders started yelling about the danger. A few laps later, the peleton came to a stop and Di Luca made an announcement to fans with a microphone.

"We're sorry, but the course is too dangerous," Di Luca said, with Armstrong beside him. "We don't want to risk our health. The circuit is not safe enough. We hope the fans understand."

Armstrong did not speak with reporters after the stage, but there was little doubt he was involved.

"After the first lap, Lance said this circuit shouldn't be raced on," said Filippo Pozzato of the Katusha team. "It turned into a big mess. Decisions like that shouldn't be made during the race but before. Often when you make decisions during the race you make mistakes."

No time bonuses were awarded to the top three finishers.

"They've betrayed the fans," Zomegnan said.

By contrast, Armstrong's longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel was pleased by the protest.

"That's what our sport has been missing," he said. "We have big players in our sport, which are the UCI and national federations and the big organizers, mainly the Tour de France and RCS. ...

"This is a step in the right direction where riders, and hopefully in the future teams, could have a better and a stronger voice when it's up to organizing our sport."

The race resumes Tuesday with a 163-mile mountain leg from Cuneo to Pinerolo, passing through the Sestriere ski resort. The stage was originally scheduled to pass through France but was altered last month, reportedly to accommodate Armstrong when he was involved in a spat with French anti-doping authorities.

The race ends May 31 in Rome.