Tour de France: Armstrong fumes as crash floors peloton

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Not even a massive pile-up in the final kilometre - which provoked acerbic criticism of the race organisation from Lance Armstrong - could impede cycling's fastest rising star, Belgium's Tom Boonen, from scooping his country's first stage of the Tour.

Not even a massive pile-up in the final kilometre - which provoked acerbic criticism of the race organisation from Lance Armstrong - could impede cycling's fastest rising star, Belgium's Tom Boonen, from scooping his country's first stage of the Tour.

The 23-year-old lunged ahead on a twisting uphill finish in Angers at the head of the group of some two dozen riders, the only ones that had managed to avoid a crash which brought four-fifths of the peloton to a grinding halt.

Well over a bike-length ahead of Thursday's stage winner, Stuart O'Grady, and the German veteran, Erik Zabel, Angers was Boonen's 14th victory of 2004, among them the prestigious Belgian semi-Classic Ghent-Wevelgem this April. But the third-year pro's win yesterday was even more noteworthy given that this is his first Tour and, as Belgium's most high-profile rider, the pressure has been rising on him since the race left Liège a week ago.

Behind his group the remainder of the field crossed the line in more or less battered dribs and drabs after picking their way through the crash behind. The last finished nearly 10 minutes behind Boonen.

Among one group of survivors was the overwhelming favourite, Armstrong, who was unharmed but fuming at what he regarded as an overly dangerous finale.

"I don't know what the hell they were doing making us go down there," he protested. "Fortunately it [the crash] happened just about 10 metres within the last kilometre [the distance within which delays from crashes are discounted] otherwise we'd all be seven minutes back by now."

But while the general classification, headed by Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, remained unchanged thanks to the crash, the green jersey did change hands as a result. Delayed by the pile-up, the previous points leader, Robbie McEwen, finished the stage grim-faced and second last with a bruise on his right thigh, allowing fellow-Australian O'Grady to move into first place.

Not that Armstrong himself had had an untroubled day before the last kilometre either - the American crashed after just 15 minutes, along with another overall contender, Roberto Heras. Although uninjured, Armstrong had the sight of team-mate Jose Luis Rubiera pedalling alongside him, nursing a thigh injury which needed six stitches, to remind him of the pitfalls of the Tour's most crash-ridden first week since 1997.

The pile-up came about when the 200-strong peloton attempted to squeeze into a stretch of road narrowed by crash barriers to some six metres across at speeds touching 60 kmh. Someone, somewhere was bound to touch wheels with another rider and in a fraction of a second, what had been a tightly packed phalanx of riders dissolved into a shapeless tangle of crumpled bikes and twisted torsos. Those behind were unable to hear the accident because of the low-flying helicopters and simply ploughed into those already on the ground, adding to the carnage.

Medical reports confirmed that worst off had been René Haselbacher of the Gerolsteiner squad, seen crouched in a foetal position on one side of the road and classified 179th, the last rider on the stage. Haselbacher suffered severe bruising down his left side and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with three broken ribs and a broken nose.

Absent from the fray were Mario Cipollini, for over a decade the world's greatest sprinter, and Alessandro Petacchi, whose nine Giro stages this June and four Tour wins last year had him tipped as Cipollini's successor, both of whom failed to start the stage.

A crash early on in the race had re-opened a major wound in Cipollini's shin - caused when he skidded across the road in a similarly lethal finale in the Giro - and gravel infected the inside of the wound. The pain proved too much for Cipollini, and Petacchi, suffering from torn ligaments from a crash on Wednesday, opted to join his fellow-Italian on a flight back to Milan from Paris.

The absence of two of the key sprinters on a stage designed for the fastmen had a knock-on effect, given that neither of their two teams, Domina Vacanze or Fassa Bortolo, were prepared to collaborate in pulling back a five-man, day-long break. Instead Petacchi's Spanish team-mate, Juan Antonio Flecha, gave the other sprinters' teams their biggest headache, peeling off from the move in the suburbs of Angers when the other four had all but thrown in the towel.

Flecha only eased up as he passed under the kilometre-to-go barrier, but at that point fate - and some ill-placed barriers - provided the peloton with the wrong reasons to remember the finish in Angers.

Race Details

Sixth stage (19km, Bonneval to Angers): 1 T Boonen (Bel) Quick Step-Davitamon 4hr 33min 41sec; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis; 3 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 4 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 5 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeux.com; 6 S Marinangeli (It) Domina Vacanze; 7 J Pineau (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère; 8 J Dean (NZ) Crédit Agricole; 9 J Tombak (Est) Cofidis; 10 S Dumoulin (Fr) AG2R; 11 F Pozzato (It) Fassa Bortolo; 12 K Kroon (Neth) Rabobank; 13 M Mori (It) Domina Vacanze; 14 M Giunti (It) Domina Vacanze; 15 L Brochard (Fr) AG2R; 16 M Backstedt (Swe) Alessio-Bianchi; 17 M Hvastija (Sloven) Alessio-Bianchi; 18 C Mengin (Fr) FDJeux.com; 19 D Becke (Ger) Illes Balears; 20 S Ivanov (Rus) T-Mobile all same time. Leading overall classification: 1 T Voeckler (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère 24hr 37min 30sec; 2 O'Grady +3min 01sec; 3 S Casar (Fr) FdJeux.com +4.06; 4 Backstedt +6.06; 5 J Piil (Den) Team CSC +6.58; 6 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +9.35; 7 G Hincapie (US) US Postal 9.45; 8. F Landis (US) US Postal +9.51; 9 J Azevedo (Por) US Postal +9.57; 10 J L Rubiera (Sp) US Postal +9.59.

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