MULHOUSE, France – Lance Armstrong is content to let someone else wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France – for now.
He surrendered the overall lead in the ninth stage Sunday, taking the pressure off his team as the Alps await and challenges with key rivals could begin in earnest.
Armstrong’s ultimate goal, however, remains unchanged: a seventh straight title at the finish in Paris on July 24 before he retires.
“We don’t need the yellow jersey,” said Armstrong, who is in third place, 2 minutes, 18 seconds behind the leader. “We don’t need to keep it in the Alps, we need to have it at the end.”
Germany’s Jens Voigt – not a contender to win in Paris – took the jersey by finishing three minutes ahead of the six-time champion.
Denmark’s Mickael Rasmussen won the stage with a gutsy solo ride. He was first over the six climbs, covering the 106.3-mile route from Gerardmer to Mulhouse in eastern France in 4 hours, 8 minutes, 20 seconds.
Voigt finished 3:04 later, just behind France’s Christophe Moreau. Armstrong, who had worn yellow for five days, finished in 28th place, crossing the line comfortably in a pack with his main rivals.
“I felt like today might be the day when the jersey would be given away and it turned out it was,” Armstrong said.
The riders rest today before the first of three Alpine stages – from Grenoble to the ski station of Courchevel. The route has two major climbs.
Wednesday’s stage is one of the hardest this year, with three ascents in quick succession peaking with the monstrous Col du Galibier, the Tour’s highest point at 8,677 feet.
The good news for Armstrong is that his Discovery Channel teammates appeared to have recovered quickly from their collapse on a climb Saturday, when all eight abandoned him, unable to match the quick uphill pace. That left Armstrong alone to fend off his rivals.
“We were better,” Armstrong said. “That’s good going into the rest day: regroup and get ready for the big climbs.”
Rivals said Discovery’s blowout probably was nothing more than a temporary bout of fatigue after a fast first week of racing, and Armstrong remains the man to beat.
“Don’t sell the bear’s skin before you’ve killed the bear,” Moreau said.
“That won’t happen again,” U.S. rider Bobby Julich of Team CSC said. “You can maybe disappoint Lance once, but it’s better not to disappoint him twice.”
Discovery rode hard Sunday at the front of the main pack, strategically allowing Rasmussen and then Voigt and Moreau to pedal off ahead, confident they cannot challenge Armstrong for the overall Tour title.
Armstrong teammate George Hincapie, the only Discovery racer to have ridden with the American for all of his six Tour wins, said the squad has become a victim of its own success.
When it wins events like the team time trial, which it did again this year, “nobody even says congratulations any more,” he said.
Hincapie said the only news is if the team has a bad day.
“Then everybody loves that,” he said.
Voigt of Team CSC does not expect to keep the lead.
“Today was my very last chance to take the jersey,” he said.
Moreau is second overall, 1:50 behind Voigt. Because they finished together in a group, the time differences between Armstrong and his main rivals – Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Alexandre Vinokourov remained unchanged.
Ullrich finished 29th, Vinokourov was 35th and Basso 39th.
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