July 18, 2009 in Sports

Armstrong loses ally Leipheimer

Suspected air-rifle shots slightly injure 2 cyclists
Jamey Keaten Associated Press

COLMAR, France – Lance Armstrong stayed in third place after a wet and chilly ride Friday and lost a crucial ally for the rest of the Tour de France when teammate Levi Leipheimer withdrew because of a broken wrist.

The 13th stage from Vittel to Colmar, won by Germany’s Heinrich Haussler, was less secure for riders Julian Dean and Oscar Freire. They were lightly injured by shots from a suspected air rifle from the roadside.

The top standings didn’t change in the 124-mile stage through the rolling hills of northeast France that featured three big climbs, including the demanding Col du Platzerwasel.

Armstrong, who trails overall leader Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy by 8 seconds and Astana teammate Alberto Contador by 2 seconds, said a crucial showdown awaits in Sunday’s ride into Switzerland.

“That one is almost a guarantee because it’s uphill,” the seven-time champion said of the ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski station of Verbier. “For sure, it’s a decisive stage and exciting for the fans.”

Armstrong and Contador expressed regret about the withdrawal of Leipheimer before the stage. Leipheimer, who had been fourth overall, 39 seconds behind Nocentini, fell off his bike and broke his wrist in the last two miles of Thursday’s stage.

He had surgery on the wrist Friday, and Astana said he would return to the United States as soon as possible to begin his recovery.

“My wrist hurts a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the pain of watching the Tour leave me behind and not be able to ride the Tour with my teammates,” Leipheimer said in a statement.

Leipheimer and Armstrong have a close relationship within Astana, which Armstrong says is driven by “tension” with Contador.

Pounding rain forced many in the pack to don windbreakers and made conditions unfavorable for potential contenders Cadel Evans of Australia, brothers Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg or the 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre.

“It was really, really cold,” said Armstrong, who is riding in his 12th Tour. “To be honest, I don’t remember a day in the Tour that has been colder than that one.”

Some riders were forced to contend with more than just slick conditions on rain-soaked roads. New Zealand’s Dean and Freire, a three-time world champion from Spain, were slightly injured by shots from what their teams suspect was an air rifle during the stage.

A projectile embedded in Freire’s thigh was removed by a Rabobank team doctor. Dean’s right index finger was injured, said Marya Pongrace, a spokeswoman for his Garmin-Slipstream team.

Police were investigating. Both cyclists were expected to start today’s mostly flat 14th stage, a 124-mile trek through plains from Colmar to Besancon, the teams said.

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