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Cycling: McEwen to lead battle of sprinters.

Byline: Bruce Millington

LANCE ARMSTRONG seemed less than thrilled to have been part of the US Postal team that suffered a narrow defeat to ONCE in yesterday's Tour de France team time trial - but the bookies reckon he has no reason to fret, writes Bruce Millington.

The champion is still firmly on course for a four-timer,

according to the layers, who kept him at between 2-9 and 1-4 after his failure to fulfil his desire to win the stage.

ONCE turned out to be just too good, meaning Coral were proved correct to make the Spanish outfit favourites.

Armstrong finds himself in third place in the overall standings, nicely placed behind ONCE duo Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Joseba Beloki.

"It's disappointing to lose the stage to the ONCE team by 16 seconds because we wanted to win, but we know we lost it in the first 20 kilometres," said Armstrong.

"We didn't start as fast as we could have and that made the difference.

"But third at seven seconds is the perfect place to be."

While the ONCE pair gave themselves a chance of making a race of it, a number of

riders hoping for a podium place suffered a setback.

Christophe Moreau's miserable Tour got worse as his Credit Agricole team finished outside the top ten, while Kelme pair Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero lost a couple of minutes. The next significant chapter in the story of the race is likely to be written in Monday's individual time trial in Brittany.

Before then there are four fairly flat stages which will pit the sprinters against the breakaway merchants.

The sprinters have had the upper hand thus far and that should again be the case today as the 189-strong field - there have been no dropouts - wend their way westwards from Soissons to Rouen.

This is one of the flattest stages of the race, but the danger to the sprinters is that a clutch of riders who are miles off the pace as a result of lowly placings yesterday may be allowed to slip into a lead that proves unassailable by the time the peloton has bothered to organise a chase.

Green jersey contenders Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen are as interested in beating each other as winning stages now that the overall lead is out of reach, so it cannot be guaranteed a breakaway will be caught.

But the sponsors of Telekom and Lotto will not be happy to see either team let an escape succeed, and McEwen, who has finished ahead of Zabel in each of the last two orthodox stages, is a fair 7-2 shot.

Oscar Freire, the winner of stage two, plans to retire

before the mountains, it was revealed yesterday.

Recommendation

R McEwen

2pts 7-2 (Coral, Surrey)

Stage four: Soissons to Rouen

Start: 11.30am

Finish: 4.15pm

Distance: 195km

Climbs: None

Weather: Mainly fine, 20% chance of rain, wind 10mph from west

CAPTION(S):

US Postal riders on their way to second place yesterday
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 11, 2002
Words:500
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