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Armstrong loses Tour lead, but not his focus

MULHOUSE, France -- Breaking up is hard to do, but there were tactical reasons for Lance Armstrong to give up his favorite outfit yesterday. ''It wasn't a priority," Armstrong said after shedding the Tour de France overall leader's yellow jersey and falling to third place, 2 minutes 18 seconds behind German rider Jens Voigt of Team CSC.

''There's always a part of you that when you cross the line and you don't get the podium ceremony and the new yellow jersey . . . is a little sad, but we have to take in consideration the entire race."

The stage included several challenging climbs and a long, flat finish and thus was tailored to the skills of breakaway specialists -- riders who take advantage of a fractured peloton and know how to get and stay ahead by themselves or with another rider or two for company.

Yesterday that meant Voigt, who more than made up his previous 1-minute gap on Armstrong in the standings as he flew to the finish three minutes ahead of the main pack with French rider Christophe Moreau. Another three minutes ahead of them, Mickael Rasmussen of the Dutch Rabobank team won the stage.

None are threats to win the Tour, so Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team elected not to go after them. Instead, Discovery concentrated on recovering from Saturday, when Armstrong found himself isolated on the day's final climb, and yesterday made a point of encircling him with a protective pod of seven or eight men throughout the day.

''Now we can sort of regroup and get ready for the big, big climbs," Armstrong said.

''Today we were better, much better. We had a good conversation [Saturday] night. No pressure . . . just some questions and words of support. Just to let them know we totally believe in everyone on the team but that we have to do better."

Voigt's new status means CSC will be expected to work harder, riding a faster tempo and spending more time at the front of the peloton when the race enters the high Alps tomorrow after a rest day in Grenoble. The uphill finish at the ski resort of Courchevel is one of only three in this year's Tour.

A savvy 33-year-old veteran, Voigt is under no illusions that he is doing anything other than renting the jersey for today's rest day.

''I think I should be able to defend the jersey tomorrow," he joked.

''I'm a good rider, but I'm not cut out for the higher mountains. You can't have it all. In the high Alps, we have other riders to take over. Today was my very last day to get this jersey and I hope one of my teammates will take it off me. We have one leader. That's Ivan Basso."

Voigt has been pleading with CSC team director Bjarne Riis for a chance to go for yellow before the real contenders start getting possessive about it, and he finally got his hall pass in a meeting on the team bus yesterday morning.

Riis ordered the rest of the team to stay around Basso, the Italian rider who is the team's best hope for a Tour win.

''Every day, I've been asking him, 'Can I go? No. Can I go? No,' " Voigt said. ''Finally, he let me free and it worked out perfectly."

Voigt had a flat tire late in the stage, but Moreau, as is customary between breakaway partners who are pulling each other along, slowed his pace to allow Voigt to catch up after his wheel change.

The German returned the favor by letting Moreau, his former teammate on the French Credit Agricole team and a native of the nearby city of Belfort in the Vosges Mountains, cross the finish line ahead of him. Moreau is now in second place, 28 seconds ahead of Armstrong.

Two other prominent riders had less happy days.

T-Mobile leader Jan Ullrich of Germany crashed on an early, high-speed descent and catapulted over his handlebars. He told German reporters that he was blown off the bike by a gust of wind and that the fall cracked his helmet.

He was able to continue and finished with the same main group as Armstrong and is still 1:36 behind the six-time champion. Ullrich will have X-rays to determine whether he suffered any fractures or internal injuries.

CSC's David Zabriskie pulled out of the race after gamely starting yesterday's stage, but it was clear that he had not recovered from his crash in the team time trial a few days ago.

Strange as it may seem, both Riis and Discovery director Johan Bruyneel said their teams had ''perfect" days.

Riis said Basso got a rest and Discovery had to burn a lot of calories. Bruyneel said the team was aiming to control the race but not necessarily defend the jersey.

''It was important for us to have a unified team around Lance, above all in the final climb, which they did to perfection, and to get back our morale," Bruyneel said.

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