Armstrong joins the drop-outs

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Demanding television schedules and cruel weather have made Tour de France life harder than usual, and yesterday the former world champion Lance Armstrong joined the list of drop-outs.

Armstrong who on Thursday came close to blows with the French rider Gilles Bouvard yesterday threw in the towel after 75 kilometres. The Tour doctor, Gerard Porte said: "He is totally exhausted from his racing so far this year."

Armstrong was not alone. In all 14, including Wednesday's stage-winner Cyril Saugrain, quit yesterday, and three others were eliminated for failing to beat the finishing deadline. That brought the list of missing in action to 31 in the first week.

For those that completed the stage the slippery roads again proved a test of nerve and agility. First home in Aix-les-Bains was a damp but happy Dutchman Michael Boogerd who escaped with a kilometre remaining for his first significant victory. Laurent Jalabert, France's great hope to unseat Miguel Indurain, was third, but his fellow countryman Stephane Heulot still has the yellow jersey.

Yesterday Heulot lost his team-mate Eddy Seigneur, which means more work for the remaining eight.

On Wednesday the Armstrong had been angry at Bouvard's wild riding at the Besancon finish, which brought down the American's team-mate Laurent Madouas. It was a sign of the twitchiness existing among riders who have been tackling rain-slicked roads since the Dutch start at Den Bosch on Saturday. They have regularly fallen behind the schedule set by the organisers, by as much as an hour on three occasions.

"It is not easy with the rain and the strong headwinds," Heulot said. "It is not that we do not want to go faster. We just cannot. It is slippery and we have to be careful all the time, and it is making us nervous."

The Frenchman Richard Virenque enjoys the Alps. He has twice won the red polka dotted jersey of best climber, but he too is apprehensive with the first big climbs due today. "We could do with some sunshine," he said. "Some of us are sick already and if the weather continues like this we will get worse."

Today they face the 2,000 metres Col de la Madeleine and 1,968m Cormet- de-Roselend followed by the knock-out blow for many, the 14km of six per cent gradient to Les Arcs with the finish just over the 1,700m summit.

Because of late starts, to assist television programming, and late finishes, because of headwinds and a general anxiety to make it to Paris in just over two weeks, the organisers have tried to ease matters.

They started yesterday's 207 kilometres from Arc-et-Senans punctually, and the riders responded with a 40kph pace in spite of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, that tested the resilience of riders, and spectators, alike.

John Hendershot heads the team that keeps Armstrong and his Motorola men supple for each day's racing. It has never been an easy life in the backroom tuning men and machines, and current schedules are squeezing everyone's worktime. "In such circumstances riders do not have time to recover," he said. "They no longer eat together [good for team bonding], as some are getting massaged while others are eating.

"Then there is the travelling between hotels and starts and finishes. The riders have to understand however that the sport needs television coverage, so sacrifices have to be made."

For some team workers their job will get easier as teams thin out, but that is not the aim of sponsors.

TOUR DE FRANCE Sixth stage (207 km, 128 miles, Arc-et-Senans to Aix-les- Bains): 1 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank 5hr 5min 38 sec; 2 E Zabel (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +1sec; 3 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE; 4 A Tchmil (Ukr) Lotto; 5 F Baldato (It) MG Technogym; 6 J Skibby (Den) TVM; 7 A Tafi (It) Mapei; 8 R Sorensen (Den) Rabobank; 9 P Fornaciari (It) SAECO; 10 Z Spruch (Pol) Panaria; 11 B Boscardin (It) Festina; 12 J Museeuw (Bel) Mapei; 13 B Hamburger (Den) TVM; 14 P Richard (Swit) MG Technogym; 15 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 16 H D Zabala (Sp) ONCE; 17 M Mauri (Sp) ONCE; 18 C Boardman (GB) GAN; 19 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank; 20 R Virenque (Fr) Festina all s/t. GB: 67 M Sciandri Motorola +12. Overall standings:1 S Heulot (France) GAN 34:55:27; 2 M Piccoli (It) Brescialat +20sec; 3 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE +4min 05sec; 4 Jalabert +4:06; 5 Y Berzin (Rus) Gewiss +4:08; 6 A Olano (Sp) Mapei +4:12; 7 B Riis (Den) Deutsche Telekom +4:16; 8 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto +4:17; 9 R Jaermann (Swit) MG Technogym +4:20; 10 Boardman +4:22; 11 Mauri +4:24; 12 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei s/t; 13 Skibby +4:35; 14 Tchmil +4:36; 15 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom 4:38; 16 Dekker +4:41; 17 Sorensen +4:42; 18 Virenque +4:43; 19 P Savoldelli (It) Roslotto +4:45; 20 Baldato s/t. GB: 57 Sciandri +5:23.