While the Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu took the overall lead by finishing second on yesterday's second stage behind the Belgian, Tom Steels, a crash on a picturesque ocean causeway on the road to Saint-Nazaire caused havoc.
Armstrong's colleague in the US Postal Service team, Jon Vaughters, was taken to hospital and had to abandon the race. A second rider, Marc Wauters, also retired with injuries, while several leading contenders lost valuable ground as a result of the crash.
The mass collision - which followed a 30-man crash earlier in the day - happened on the Passage du Gois, which connects a small island to the mainland in the coastal Vendee region. The causeway, which is closed at high tide, is four kilometres long and no more than two car-lengths wide.
Several men were brought down in the crash and in the chaos that followed a large number of riders were separated from the main field. One of the day's biggest losers was Britain's Chris Boardman, who trailed in more than 15 minutes after the triumphant Steels.
Ahead of Boardman, a chasing group including a number of notable riders rolled in more than six minutes behind the winner. The group included Switzerland's Alex Zulle, the 1997 Tour of Spain winner, Ivan Gotti, twice the winner of theGiro d'Italia, and the Dutch hope, Michael Boogerd.
As Vaughters was going to hospital with a bruised chin and "feeling dizzy," Armstrong was among a leading group of 75 who formed after the crash.
Kirsipuu was there too, and poised to complete a maximum collection of 16 seconds in deductions from his aggregate race time for winning three intermediate sprints. Then he rubbed it home by finishing second to Steels at the end of a flat 175 -kilometre stage which was relieved by one climb, the 720- metre high road bridge over the Loire. "Three days ago I did even consider that I could win a stage, but I have gained confidence since the race began," Kirsipuu said.
One of those who managed to steer clear of the crash was Richard Virenque, who spoke yesterday for the first time about his reinstatement in the Tour. Virenque's chances of improving on his best overall placing of second two years ago seemed lost last month when the Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, listed the Frenchman as one of those he was ruling out of the race because of the drugs issue which has torn the event apart over the last year.
The Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body, pointed out that any ban should have been made a month before the start. Leblanc's action came two weeks ago, so he was ordered to readmit Virenque to the race.
Virenque who hopes to be challenging for the yellow jersey when the Tour enters the Alps and is currently 1min 15sec off the pace, said that his recall had come as a big surprise. "I had lost all hope, and I could not believe it," he said.
Virenque's popularity has slipped recently and he topped a recent poll to find the least-liked celebrity. A number of anti-drugs banners were visible along the route yesterday. Some said "Say No to EPO", in a reference to one of the drugs at the centre of the controversy.
"I don't care," Virenque said. "I live for myself and not for those who don't like me. I will respond to that on my bike. When the racing is slow I see signs on the road in support of me. It's nice to be supported, and above all I will need that support in the mountains."
Virenque has built his Tour reputation in the Alps and Pyrenees and has won the best climber's red-polka colours four times. "My problem is that it has been a long time since I raced in the Giro d'Italia," he said before the start of yesterday's stage. "I lack pace because I have not had enough racing. I have not made the sacrifices that it takes to contest the Tour."
Despite some anti-Virenque feeling, some other fans showed their support for the Frenchman. "Go on Richard - we forgive you," one banner held by two young children said.
Thousands of holidaymakers lined the roads all through yesterday's stage, which came at the beginning of many French people's summer holiday. Many set up folding chairs and elaborate picnic tables along the road, or leaned out of balconies in small villages to join in the action.
STAGE 2 (Challans to St Nazaire, 176km, 109 miles): 1 T Steels (Bel) Mapei 3hr 45min 32sec; 2 J Kirsipuu (Est) Casino; 3 M Cipollini (It) Saeco; 4 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 5 J Casper (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 6 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 7 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre; 8 S Martinello (It) Polti; 9 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 10 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 11 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 12 S Hinault (Fr) Credit Agricole; 13 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 14 F de Waele (Bel) Lotto; 15 Z Spruch (Pol) Lampre; 16 H Vogels (Aus) Credit Agricole; 17 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank; 18 M Aerts (Bel) Lotto; 19 R Huser (Swit) Festina; 20 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole all s/t. Selected: 21 A Olano (Sp) Banesto; 42 B Julich (US) Cofidis; 49 R Virenque (Fr) Polti; 53 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei all s/t; 88 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +6min 03sec; 130 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole +15:15.
LEADING OVERALL STANDINGS: 1 Kirsipuu 8hr 49min 38sec; 2 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +14sec; 3 O'Grady +22; 4 Olano +25; 5 Moreau +29; 6 Steels +31; 7 Hincapie +32; 8 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Casino +35; 9 S Gonzalez (Sp) ONCE s/t; 10 A Peron (It) ONCE +37; 11 C Vandevelde (US) US Postal; 12 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco s/t; 13 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +40; 14 Tonkov +42; 15 Simon; 16 Julich s/t; 17 A Gonzalez (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +43; 18 Dekker; 19 P Savoldelli (It) Saeco; 20 P Jonker (Aus) Rabobank s/t. Selected: 4 Olano +25sec; 14 Tonkov +42; 16 Julich +42; 54 Virenque +1:05; 112 Boogerd +7:19; 126 Boardman +15:46.Reuse content