LES ESSARTS, France - A master of strategy after all these rides, Lance Armstrong did what he had to: He stayed out of trouble.
Armstrong negotiated the second stage of his farewell Tour de France on Sunday, finishing safely in the pack and in 63rd place. Crucially, he avoided danger by steering clear of sprinters jostling for position on a day when several fell, and Belgium's Tom Boonen was the winner.
Armstrong, bidding for a seventh straight Tour de France title, had no intention of trying to win the 112.5-mile run from Challans to Les Essarts, raced in the sunshine in the Vendee region of western France - once a stronghold of royalist supporters during the French Revolution more than two centuries ago.
Two years ago, Armstrong was part of a 35-man pileup on a similarly flat stage early in the Tour, and was lucky to get away with scratches and bruises.
"These finishes still scare me. I won't miss them," said Armstrong, who is set to retire after the race. "Everybody's a bit nervous, everybody's cracking a little bit."
Boonen won in just under four hours, beating Norway's Thor Hushovd and Australia's Robbie McEwen in a hair-raising dash to the line.
Armstrong took a major step Saturday, eclipsing Jan Ullrich and other main rivals with an outstanding ride on the opening day's time trial. The Texan is in second place overall and two seconds behind fellow U.S. rider David Zabriskie of Team CSC, who had the yellow jersey for a second day.
With a key team time trial Tuesday and Alpine mountain stages looming, Armstrong refrained from needless risks. He has most of the 2,242 miles, Alps and Pyrenees ahead.
In those mountains, fans line the climbs and stand perilously close to riders. A sudden loss of concentration can lead to a nasty fall - like the one Armstrong had in the Pyrenees in 2003 when he caught a spectator's bag and fell.
Flanked by his protective Discovery Channel teammates, Armstrong managed to take in some scenery Sunday. Riders rolled side by side past wide-open fields while cows grazed lazily and the occasional American flag waved.
Before the start of the stage, hundreds of fans mingled outside his team bus. As they waited, his girlfriend, rock star Sheryl Crow, chatted and signed autographs.
Armstrong is much in demand on his final Tour. Even five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault had to wait 15 minutes before climbing aboard the bus to see him.
Armstrong thanked his teammates for keeping him out of danger on a day when 10 riders fell.
"My legs were terrible," Armstrong joked. "Actually, I feel pretty good. I figure the faster I pedal, the faster I can retire."
Boonen was delighted with his victory.
"It was a sprint for the strong riders, so it was an advantage for me," he said. "It was not a problem."
He won the stage in 3 hours, 51 minutes, 31 seconds while Hushovd finished in the same time. So did McEwen and Stuart O'Grady, Australians who finished third and fourth.
"I'm pleased to win here and have the green jersey on my shoulders tomorrow (Monday)," Boonen said. The green jersey is awarded to the best overall sprinter.
McEwen, who won the green jersey in 2002 and 2004, was annoyed at himself.
"I made a tactical error and attacked too early," he said.
With under less than 1.9 miles remaining, French rider Samuel Dumoulin fell. Caught in the middle of a group of riders, Dumoulin lost control of his bike and it wobbled beneath him, pushing him out of the saddle and forcing others to swerve around him. His left knee was deeply gashed but he is expected to keep riding.
According to Tour race rules, if a rider falls with less than three kilometers (1.9 miles) remaining, those in the main pack are awarded the same time as the winner. In Armstrong's case, this meant he was accorded the same time as Boonen.
Ullrich failed to gain any ground on Armstrong but his 19th-place finish was an improvement on Saturday's time trial.
Although the German is still feeling the effects of crashing through the rear window of his team car during training Friday, Armstrong believes Ullrich remains a serious threat.
"I talked to him today," Armstrong said. "If you go into the back of the car and shatter the window with no helmet on that's got to affect you. So you can't take anything away from him after the way he rode yesterday. He'll be better in a few days time."
Ullrich said he woke up Sunday feeling much better.
"I felt pretty good," he said. "I felt fine and was able to stay with the leaders toward the end of the stage."
Monday's third stage is a flat, 131.8-mile course from La Chataigneraie to Tours and again favors sprinters, meaning Armstrong again will try to avoid trouble.
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