CHARLEROI, Belgium — Lance Armstrong played it safe in the first full stage of the Tour de France.
The five-time winner knows he has plenty of time.
Saving himself for the ordeal to come, Armstrong finished comfortably back in the pack in 48th. He is focused on winning a record sixth-straight Tour, not scrapping for victories in the hazardous and fast-paced early stages of the three-week race.
A final all-out burst of speed secured Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu’s victory in the 125.5-mile trek that featured roads turned treacherous by rain. There were crashes, crowds, wind, punctures and a mighty finishing sprint to contend with: all factors that make the Tour’s first week the part that Armstrong relishes least.
“You have to live with the crashes, and hope you don’t get into one,” said Armstrong, who is third overall.
For sprinters like Kirsipuu, 34, the Tour’s relatively flat early stages are their strength, the reason why they come to the Tour even though they have no prospect of winning the overall crown when the race finishes in Paris on July 25.
Muscling his way through a gaggle of riders sprinting to the finish, Kirsipuu edged Australian Robbie McEwen and Norway’s Thor Hushovd.
“The sprint was incredible for me,” Kirsipuu said. “I am really, really happy.”
Armstrong finished in the main pack of riders Sunday but started his Tour in emphatic fashion in Saturday’s prologue time trial, leaving key rivals in his wake. That performance silenced murmurs that, at age 32, the Texan is past his prime and could be ready to fall to his principal challenger, Jan Ullrich. The German finished 32nd in Sunday’s stage, in the same time as Armstrong.
Before the stage’s start, Armstrong chatted with reporters, and appeared happy and confident, a marked contrast to last year when a cloud of tension was often felt around his U.S. Postal Service squad. He beat Ullrich for his fifth Tour title by 61 seconds last year, a margin that redoubled the champion’s determination to do better this time.
“Lance is more relaxed,” his teammate Floyd Landis said. “But it’s a long race.”
Overall, Armstrong is third but will be looking to take the lead in mountain climbs and time trials that come later. Ullrich is 16th overall, a mere 15 seconds behind Armstrong.
The stage victory was Kirsipuu’s fourth in 11 Tours and his first since 2002. As other sprinters, who struggle in the mountains that come later, he has never completed the race.
Sunday’s stage started with a series of moderate hill climbs but leveled out toward the end, allowing the pack to catch up to a pair of riders who tried to make a late breakaway for the finish line down streets lined with cheering crowds.
The overall leader’s yellow jersey stayed on the young shoulders of Fabian Cancellara, 23, a Swiss rider who won the debut time trial Saturday in the third-fastest speed in the history of that event.
There were several crashes Sunday, the first less than nine miles from the start in Liege, Belgium.