Off-road, Armstrong keeps seat and lead

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAP, France - Lance Armstrong is easily bored, so he likes to mix it up in his winter off-season training.

He plays tennis. He hikes in the Texas Hill Country. More than once, he has entered a casual race near his hometown of Austin called the "Dirty Duathlon," pounding through two 3-mile runs and a 12-mile mountain bike course, splashing through mud and over tree roots.

Though Armstrong couldn't have known it, those off-road skills would come in handy yesterday, as he had to bushwhack his way across a field to avoid serious injury - his second near miss in this demolition derby of a Tour de France.

In 100-degree temperatures that turned the road in this part of southeastern France into a greasy pancake griddle, Joseba Beloki of Spain, the man closest to Armstrong in the overall standings, lost control of his bike on a high-speed descent and crashed less than three miles from the finish of Stage 9.

The Spanish ONCE team rider wept with pain and frustration in his team director's arms after the crushing blow that fractured his right thigh bone, elbow and wrist and ended his hopes of stopping Armstrong's Tour winning streak at four.

"I would rather have everybody in the race," said Armstrong, who remained in the overall lead by 21 seconds.

"He was racing aggressively. You hate to see a guy who's out there doing his best, and a real threat for the race, go out like that."

Beloki, who had attacked Armstrong on the previous climb, was showing more mettle than he did last year, when he seemed content to ride for second place.

The two men were barreling around a switchback on the descent of the Cote de la Rochette, the last of the day, as they led the pursuit of eventual stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov of the Telekom team.

"The road was melting," Armstrong said. "The asphalt was bubbling. But it wasn't slippery until that corner."

When Beloki's back wheel started to fishtail on a dark patch on the asphalt, he braked sharply and his rear tire exploded. He skidded on the rim, fell heavily and lay crumpled on the scorching pavement.

Armstrong, riding on Beloki's wheel, instinctively veered onto the grassy slope to the left, cutting off the road's corner. After coasting rapidly to the field's edge, he got off his bike, portaged it across a ditch, remounted on the road and rejoined the chase group.

"I couldn't go right - it was too late to go right," Armstrong said. "My back wheel was sliding out also. I couldn't go straight - I would have hit him. My only option was to go left. I said, 'This is the only chance I have.' I'm used to improvising.

"You can't train for that. It's a reaction ... Thank God it was plowed. I expected to get a flat tire or have some problem with the wheels. I was lucky I made it through."

Although riders are normally penalized for short cuts, race officials ruled that Armstrong's detour was justified and he had not gained an advantage from it.

As Armstrong began rolling again, his friend and former teammate Tyler Hamilton gave him a quick pat on the behind. Armstrong said he didn't even feel it. "I was so schitzed out," Armstrong said

Hamilton is still very much in the mix, lurking in fifth place, 1 minute, 52 seconds behind Armstrong, despite riding with a broken collarbone for the past week.

The crash in which Hamilton was injured, a massive pile-up in a bunch sprint at the end of Stage 1, also ended the race for potential Tour contender Levi Leipheimer. Armstrong was caught in the melee, but escaped with bumps and scrapes.

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