LA GRANDE-MOTTE, France With the wind whirling and whirring across a vast marshland during the Tour de France on Monday, Lance Armstrong did what he thought was natural. He pedaled to the front of the peloton just before the course, and the day’s stage, took a turn.
For Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner riding for Astana, it was the right move at the right time.
“I was just trying to stay up front, stay out of trouble, and then it happened,” he said later. “Good positioning, experience and a little bit of good luck.”
The riders began the day in Marseille and traveled 122 miles (196.5 kilometers) through an area just off the Mediterranean Sea called the Camargue, where ranchers raise famed white horses and fighting bulls. Not long after Armstrong made his way to the front, the peloton turned a corner with about 19 miles, or 30 kilometers, left in the stage.
Clustered in front, the entire Team Columbia-HTC squad accelerated through that curve, sweeping up Armstrong and about 19 others and splitting the peloton. Left behind, the rest of the riders never caught up.
Mark Cavendish of the Columbia team went on to win his second consecutive stage because of his team’s help. But Armstrong also benefited. He was the only race favorite in that lead group, making him the only race favorite in the group when it crossed the finish line.
“You know what the wind is doing, and you see that a turn is coming up, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you have to go to the front,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s teammate Alberto Contador was among the top riders dropped when Team Columbia made its move, as was Denis Menchov, the winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Other contenders, like Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck, also finished 41 seconds behind the lead group.
Armstrong moved to third place in the overall standings from 10th in his first Tour since winning in 2005. He is 40 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, the Saxo Bank rider who remained in the leader’s yellow jersey.
Columbia’s Tony Martin of Germany is second over all, 33 seconds back. Contador is 59 seconds back, falling to fourth place from second.
“It’s not normal that all of the favorites are surprised,” said Johan Bruyneel, the Astana team manager. “The wind direction was really strange. All of a sudden, the wind changed and we had that split.”
Christophe Le Mevel, a French rider on the Francaise des Jeux team, blamed Contador for letting Columbia and the rest of the group get away. He said Contador failed to stick closely to the rider ahead of him when the peloton was making the critical turn.
Contador did not address who caused the split or why it happened.
“Everyone can extract their own conclusions,” Contador said of the Astana team’s tactics. “Anyway, the Tour is not going to be decided with what has happened today. This only has been another situation of the race.”
After two long days with temperatures in the mid-80s to low 90s, the riders now face yet another tough stage: the team time trial in Montpellier.
George Hincapie of the Columbia team said his squad would have a chance to win the trial, even though he and his colleagues pushed hard Monday. He said every team would be just as exhausted after Columbia’s big move during Stage 3.
The move was not planned, Hincapie said, but it turned out to be necessary if the team wanted Cavendish to win. Hincapie said that he and his teammates had been riding up front for much of the afternoon, and that no other team was willing to help them chase down an earlier, smaller breakaway.
So Columbia’s riders decided to do the job themselves. Hincapie, one of Armstrong’s good friends and former teammates, said that the more experienced riders should have foreseen the possible move and positioned themselves near the front the way Armstrong did.
“It’s not necessarily a turning point in the race,” Hincapie said of Armstrong’s performance. “But it’s good sign that he’s back.”
Astana was fined 65 euros (about $90) for being late to sign in for Monday’s stage despite considerable traffic at the port of Marseille near the start. Riders must usually sign in at least 20 minutes before the race, but the team missed that cutoff. “Today, and as usual, the Astana team arrived late at the prestage registration, in contempt of the crowd, who has once again not seen Lance Armstrong,” said Jean-Francois Pescheux, the Tour’s competitions director, according to Reuters.