Tour without Armstrong creates pressures for would-be heirs

CAEN, France - Here's a Tour de France riddle: After so many years of riding in Lance Armstrong's wake, how will his heir - whoever it may be - cope with the pressure of wearing the race leader's yellow jersey as the finish in Paris nears?

It's a question some favorites are already asking themselves.

"I've imagined it enough. I think it'll be normal. I'll be alright," American Floyd Landis said after safely completing Thursday's stage five, which was won by three-time former world champion Oscar Freire in a sprint finish.

Race leader Tom Boonen, who placed second, is learning all about the added weight that comes with trying to hang onto the prized jersey that seven-time champion Armstrong made his own from 1999-2005.

"It's been causing a lot of strain," said the world champion, whose lead over Australian Michael Rogers grew Thursday to 13 seconds. Freire vaulted from 20th to third overall, bumping George Hincapie of the United States down to fourth. They are both 17 seconds behind Boonen.

Although Boonen has won smaller stage races and the treacherous Paris-Roubaix, the "queen of the classics" that dates to 1896, he is still seen - and sees himself - as a sprint contender, not as a favorite for the overall Tour title that will be decided in long time trials and mountain climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps in weeks two and three.

"It's more heavy for me because I'm not supposed to wear it," the Belgian said of the yellow shirt that he first took on Tuesday and will wear for a third day straight on Friday's stage six, which marks the end of the first week.

"It's something I have to work for very hard because I'm not the kind of rider to wear yellow in the Tour," Boonen added. "I'm very, very proud of it."

Landis, who already has three stage-race wins under his belt this year, is the kind of rider that could be wearing yellow when the Tour heads out of the Alps back toward the finish in Paris on July 23.

The Pennsylvanian is a solid time-trialer and mountain climber and learned from the best. He and Armstrong were teammates before Landis switched to the Swiss outfit Phonak.

Armstrong was a master in building and holding onto Tour leads. He soaked up, even thrived on, the pressure of being in yellow and the center of attraction. He surrounded himself with strong teammates like Landis who controlled the race, allowing rivals few if any openings to make up lost time.

But this year, in a field depleted by Armstrong's retirement and a doping scandal that forced out the favorites to succeed him, no single team has yet been displayed the dominance that was the hallmark of his U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel squads.

Instead, the racing so far has had a mellower, less regulated, more fluid feel. Boonen said the searing temperatures of the first few days - which eased Thursday with a little rain and overcast skies - also affected the pace.

How teams and top riders will cope with the pressure if they are in a position to win going into and coming out of the Alps is one of the many questions hanging over this Tour filled with uncertainties and ripe for surprises.

"Coming out of the Alps?" mused Landis, who placed 34th Thursday and is eighth overall. "I can't plan on anything like that, I've gotta take it one day at a time."

For now, contenders for the overall title have been concentrating not on placings but on avoiding crashes that often mar the relatively flat and fast first week and which took out a top rider, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who fractured a collarbone, requiring surgery.

"You stay safe, stay out of trouble, try to conserve as much energy as possible. It is not rocket science," said American Levi Leipheimer, 49th on Thursday and 25th overall.

Boonen's goal is not wearing yellow in Paris but green - the color of the jersey awarded to the Tour's best sprinter.

He is just one point behind Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen, who won the green jersey in 2002 and 2004, in that category. But Boonen has yet to display the explosiveness he showed on the past two Tours, when he won four stages. He blamed his second place Thursday on a mistake in the final sprint.

"I think I'm a little bit too nervous," he said.

Freire, of the Rabobank squad, made no mistakes, accelerating sharply in the last 300 meters (yards) and sprinting up the right side of the finishing straight to take the stage victory, his second in three Tours. Inaki Isasi of the Basque team Euskaltel placed third. McEwen, winner of two sprint stages this Tour and 10 overall, was fifth.

"It wasn't the way that I'm used to sprinting. I usually stay in other riders' wheels and wait until the last second," said Freire. But this time "what I needed to do was to take the initiative ... That is what I did."

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