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TOUR DE FRANCE

Patient Armstrong staying with pack

CHARLEROI, Belgium -- Lance Armstrong played it safe in the first full stage of the Tour de France.

The five-time winner knows he has plenty of time.

Saving himself for the ordeal to come, Armstrong finished comfortably back in the pack in 48th place yesterday. He is focused on winning a record sixth straight Tour, not scrapping for victories in the hazardous and fast-paced early stages of the three-week race.

A final all-out burst of speed secured Jaan Kirsipuu's victory in the 125 1/2-mile trek that featured roads turned treacherous by rain. There were crashes, crowds, wind, punctures, and a mighty finishing sprint to contend with -- all factors that make the Tour's first week the part that Armstrong relishes least.

"You have to live with the crashes, and hope you don't get into one," said Armstrong, who is third overall.

But for sprinters like Kirsipuu, a 34-year-old Estonian, the Tour's relatively flat early stages are their strength, the reason they come to the Tour even though they have no prospect of winning the overall crown when the race finishes in Paris July 25.

Muscling his way through a gaggle of riders sprinting to the finish, Kirsipuu edged Australian Robbie McEwen and Norway's Thor Hushovd.

"The sprint was incredible for me," Kirsipuu said. "I am really, really happy."

Armstrong finished in the main pack of riders yesterday but started his Tour in emphatic fashion in Saturday's prologue time trial, leaving key rivals in his wake. That performance silenced murmurs that, at age 32, the Texan is past his prime and could be ready to fall to his principal challenger, Jan Ullrich. The German finished 32d in yesterday's stage, in the same time as Armstrong.

Overall, Armstrong is third but will be looking to take the lead in mountain climbs and time trials that come later. Ullrich is 16th overall, 15 seconds behind Armstrong. The stage victory was Kirsipuu's fourth in 11 Tours and first since 2002. But like other sprinters who struggle in the mountains, he has never completed the race.

The overall leader's yellow jersey stayed on Fabian Cancellara, a 23-year-old Swiss rider who won the time trial Saturday in the third-fastest speed in the history of that event. There were several crashes yesterday, the first less than 9 miles from the start in Liege, Belgium. It threw off Italian rider Mario Cipollini, making his Tour comeback after four years away, as well as Spain's Oscar Sevilla and French rider Guillaume Auger. They all rejoined the race, although Sevilla needed a new bike.

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