REIMS, France -- Lance Armstrong returned to the site of his first Tour de France success Tuesday, content this time to ride easy through the heart of champagne country and a hub of American sentiment.
The 30-year-old Texan finished the 108.19-mile third stage through eastern France from Metz to Reims in 33rd place, as his U.S. Postal Service team turned its sights toward Wednesday's team time trial.
Tuesday's course took riders through the World War I battlefield of Verdun, where Armstrong won his first Tour stage in 1993 - the year he won the World Championship.
Australia's Robbie McEwen won the stage Tuesday, in 4 hours, 13 minutes, 17 seconds. He thrust clenched fists into the air as he crossed the finish line in a sprint just ahead of Germany's Erik Zabel, who took the overall leader's yellow jersey.
Armstrong finished in a pack of 185 other riders that clocked the same time as McEwen. Armstrong slipped to fifth place overall, from fourth, but was right where he wants to be at this point in the 21-day event.
"If you had offered me this scenario before the Tour, I would have signed for it right away," USPS team leader Johan Bruyneel said. Armstrong isn't expected to seek a commanding lead until the race reaches the mountains next week.
The USPS team is one of the favorites to win Wednesday's fourth stage, a 41.85-mile team time trial that runs from the Champagne capital of Epernay to the historic town of Chateau-Thierry.
"U.S. Postal seem to have a great chance of winning the time trial, so holding on to the yellow jersey seems uncertain," said Zabel. He took the jersey from young Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati, who held it for two days.
After three days of riding through Luxembourg and western Germany, the cyclists moved into France for Tuesday's stage. The course took riders through the flat pastureland and wheatfields of eastern France, and through a major battle zone in World War I.
"They're riding through a World War I battlefield on which more than 400,000 people died," said Phil Rivers, superintendent of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in nearby Romagne.
Thousands of fans turned out to cheer the riders under overcast skies. In a region that often honors U.S. soldiers who died here, many fans waved American flags or team jerseys of the USPS riders.
Rivers said the region is one of the most pro-American areas of France. A total of 14,296 American soldiers are buried in the cemetery he oversees, making it the largest U.S. cemetery in Europe, he said.
Many locals have thrown their support behind Armstrong.
"There are a lot of people in this region who would love to see an American win the Tour again," said Alcide Leclerc, 70, of Verdun.
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a cycling aficionado who has attended the Tour in each of the last 14 years, was on hand in the eastern city of Metz for the start of the stage on Tuesday. He said he expects Armstrong to win a fourth straight Tour title.
"Everybody thinks that it's going to be the same who wins once again," he said.
Belgian Eddy Merckx, who along with three other riders holds the record of five Tour victories, said he's not concerned that Armstrong may break that mark. Merckx, whose son Axel is racing this year, won his titles between 1969 and 1974.
"I'm not afraid of losing the record. It's not a problem if it's beaten," Merckx said.
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