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Tour de France

Armstrong drops to fourth

By Jamey Keaten
Associated Press / July 19, 2009
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BESANCON, France - Lance Armstrong was unfazed about slipping to fourth place at the Tour de France. Instead, he was riled that his former lieutenant, George Hincapie, was deprived of the yellow jersey - allegedly by a rival US team.

Hincapie, the only man to be a teammate of Armstrong on all seven of his Tour victories, came within 5 seconds of the race lead in the 14th stage won yesterday by Russia’s Serguei Ivanov.

The ride was marred by the death of a 61-year-old woman spectator after she was hit by an escorting police motorcycle while she crossed the course route. Two other fans were injured.

Columbia rider Hincapie finished the 124-mile stage from Colmar to Besancon in an eight-man group just 16 seconds after the Russian, who was 5 minutes 36 seconds ahead of the main race contenders.

Starting the stage as the highest-placed rider in the breakaway group, 5:25 behind leader Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy, Hincapie had a shot to swipe the leader’s yellow shirt.

Instead, as Armstrong and his Astana team claimed, the US squad Garmin-Slipstream pressed the pace in a way that helped the Italian hold a slim lead over Hincapie.

Armstrong, on his Twitter feed, took aim at Garmin-Slipstream, which competes with Columbia for dibs as the top American squad at the Tour this year.

“No one wanted George in yellow more than me,’’ he tweeted.

“Until 10km [6.2 miles] to go he was solidly in yellow until GARMIN put on the gas and made sure it didn’t happen,’’ Armstrong wrote.

French TV cameras showed Hincapie as he watched Nocentini’s pack cross the finish line - and he harumphed in frustration that he had not garnered the yellow shirt.

“I don’t know why you would do that with George at this stage of his career,’’ Columbia manager Bob Stapleton said. “I mean that’s a victory for everybody. That’s something that would have gotten attention all over the US, that would have been good for the whole sport in America,’’ he said.

For Armstrong, it was little matter that Hincapie’s performance put him in second overall, bumping him and Astana teammate Alberto Contador each down a notch in the standings.

Contador, who too said he hoped Hincapie would take the race lead, dropped from second to third, but remains 6 seconds behind Nocentini. The Texan fell from third to fourth, 8 seconds back.

Sentiment aside, Hincapie in yellow would have meant that his powerful Columbia team would take on the tough job of protecting the race lead in today’s 15th stage - the first ride in the Alps and a likely pivot point for the overall race standings. Astana, with its big stars, could let Columbia do the work of leading the pack.

Astana doesn’t consider Hincapie a threat for overall Tour victory when the race ends next Sunday in Paris. He isn’t expected to fare as well as Contador and Armstrong in the Alps or in a critical individual time trial in and near Annecy in Thursday’s Stage 18.

“Garmin just wanted to prevent another American team from taking the yellow jersey. It’s not right,’’ Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said. “It’s not very sporting.’’