Lance hasn't lost (mental) step on road

LA GRANDE MOTTE, France -- Lance Armstrong's sideburns may have grayed a bit during his temporary retirement, but he showed no signs of racing senility on a day when many top riders were caught flat-footed.

Team Columbia-HTC -- irritated with the peloton's lack of cooperation in chasing down a breakaway, and anticipating the crosswinds that were about to buffet the course as it veered right through the Camargue marshland that fronts the Mediterranean coast -- made a sudden, risky surge forward late in Stage 3 of the Tour de France. The move split the group and threw a grenade into what had been a predictable amble toward a sprint finish.

Columbia formed the angled pace line called an echelon with the kind of power and choreography that would have made aerospace engineers proud, throttling up to chase down the four men down the road and set up the finale for their star, Mark Cavendish. Another 20 riders who were in the front of the peloton jumped with them, including Armstrong and current overall leader Fabian Cancellara of the Saxo Bank team.

Cavendish won with a flourish, holding his hand to his ear in a tribute to the team's new co-sponsor, a wireless phone company. The other beneficiary of the day was Armstrong, who vaulted to third overall, 40 seconds behind Cancellara and seven seconds shy of Columbia's young German star Tony Martin, neither of whom is a threat for the overall. More significantly and symbolically, Armstrong is 19 seconds ahead of his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, who was unable to maintain the stepped-up tempo.

That shake-up will dump kerosene onto the speculation that a full-tilt leadership struggle is about to erupt on Astana. Armstrong didn't exactly add to the bonfire, but he was clearly exhilarated by the day's events. You snooze, you lose time in a bike race. It just doesn't generally happen the way it did Monday, on a flat stage in torrid heat headed toward an almost certain bunch sprint finish.

"When you know what the wind is doing and you see a turn coming up, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you have to ride in the front," said Armstrong, who said he decided to come forward just before Columbia accelerated and attributed his performance to "good positioning, experience, a little bit of luck. … I was just trying to stay up front and stay out of trouble, and it happened."

A reporter in the scrum around Armstrong at the finish asked whether his longtime friend and former teammate George Hincapie tipped him to Columbia's move.

"No, they were in the front," Armstrong said. "It wasn't an attack. They were pulling back the break. They turned, they saw the wind and they just accelerated. It wasn't like it was an ambush."

But many riders in the peloton apparently weren't ready to respond to the sudden change in tempo after a leisurely day in the heat when many teams were looking to conserve energy before Tuesday's difficult team time trial.

Contador probably won't be consoled by this, but he was in good company. Other contenders who got caught in the back included Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto, Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Slipstream, Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank, Carlos Sastre of Cervelo and Denis Menchov of Rabobank. (Menchov is most distant from Armstrong at 1 minutes, 39 seconds behind the Texan.)

According to Francaise des Jeux rider Christophe Le Mevel, who was on Contador's wheel when the peloton fractured, the Spaniard was the last man who tried to go with the strung-out front group after Columbia's acceleration. He could not keep up and fell away. He and the rest of the shell-shocked peloton tried to recoup but never narrowed the gap to less than 18 seconds.

The 2007 Tour winner said he found himself in "no-man's-land" when the split occurred. Contador would not comment on team tactics except to say that with three riders in the break, Astana's workload in the rear group was reduced. "Everyone can [come to] his own conclusions," he told reporters. "Anyway, the Tour is not going to be decided with what has happened today."

Armstrong basically agreed with that, but it's worth recalling that the past two Tours have been won by less than a minute and a half combined.

Cavendish, who embraced Armstrong after the stage, clearly had no sympathy for riders who lost time because of the unusual maneuver. "The riders with the teams who wanted to ride like juniors got results like juniors," he said dismissively.

Hincapie said the team bolted out of frustration. "It wasn't really a plan," he told VeloNews.com. "We were a bit peeved that nobody would help us. … We were just asking guys to give us a little bit of a hand. Nobody would. So we decided if we saw a moment, were going to go full gas and do some damage.

"We were killing two of our own guys; tomorrow's a really hard day, so we decided that if we were going to kill two guys, might as well kill the whole team and the rest of the peloton and get some time and win the stage. It was a great day."

Astana director Johan Bruyneel said that once the break was established and he knew that two more of his riders, Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia of Spain, were with Armstrong, he decided it was best to let the group stay away even though Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden -- three previous Tour podium finishers -- were caught in the group behind. Declining to join in the chase made it "hard on the other teams, since we didn't have to do anything in the back," he said.

Bruyneel also said it plays into Astana's hands to have Cancellara retain the yellow jersey after the team time trial, a strong possibility now given the size of his margin. That would give Saxo Bank the unenviable duty of controlling the peloton in the two long, hot and mostly flat stages that remain before the race's first mountaintop finish on Friday.

"Sometimes things like this happen," Bruyneel said. "It was really a surprise moment, because it's not normal that all the favorites are surprised."

Except one.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.