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Armstrong holds Tour lead despite protest that briefly stops riders
Associated PressJakob Piil of Denmark reacts as he wins the 10th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Gap, southeastern France, and Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, July 15, 2003. Piil won the final sprint against Italy's Fabio Sacchi.

MARSEILLE, France (AP) - Lance Armstrong kept his overall lead in the Tour de France on Tuesday despite losing time after being stuck in a pack of riders blocked by street protesters.

Armstrong finished in a group that completed the 136-mile, 10th stage more than 20 minutes behind the winner, Denmark's Jakob Piil of Team CSC.

All of Armstrong's key rivals were in the main pack with him, meaning they did not gain time on the four-time champion who is trying to tie Miguel Indurain's record of five straight wins.

Armstrong, wearing the leader's yellow jersey, finished in 45th place - 21 minutes, 23 seconds behind Piil.

Alexandre Vinokourov, a Kazak rider for Team Telekom, remains second overall, 21 seconds behind Armstrong. Spain's Iban Mayo, an Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, is third overall, 62 seconds back.

Finishing in the same time as Armstrong on Tuesday were Vinokourov (53rd place), Mayo (42nd), 1997 winner Jan Ullrich (34th) and American Tyler Hamilton (36th).

After three grueling days in the Alps, the main pack appeared happy to take it easy during this stage. The riders let a breakaway group - no threat to the overall leaders - get far ahead.

Piil was among that breakaway group. The nine riders surged ahead just 9.9 miles into the race, and their breakaway of more than 124 miles was the longest so far in this Tour.

Piil beat Italian rider Fabio Sacchi of the Saeco team in a final sprint to the finish at Marseille. Bram de Groot of the Netherlands, with the Rabobank team, was third.

The protest forced riders to stop after supporters of radical farmer Jose Bove ran into the road and blocked cyclists near Pourrieres, about 91 miles into the race.

Tour officials immediately ruled the protest was "a normal race incident," meaning riders would have to suffer the penalties of being caught in the protest. However, Armstrong's main rivals got caught in the pack as well, so his overall lead was not affected.

Armstrong remains the favorite to capture his fifth consecutive Tour, but his performance has been fraught with struggle and nerve-racking close calls.

He narrowly missed crashing for the second time Monday, and a week ago he was lucky to avoid serious injury in the opening stage - emerging with just bruises from a pileup involving 35 riders.

In Monday's ninth stage, won by Kazakstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, only quick reactions and a penchant for improvisation prevented a potentially disastrous fall.

Sweeping down a steep descent close to the finish line in Gap, Armstrong had to swerve suddenly as Spain's Joseba Beloki - a fraction ahead of the Texan - jammed his wheel and fell from his bike.

Beloki broke his right leg, elbow and wrist, doctors said. He was being flown to Vitoria, Spain, for surgery on his right leg, organizers said Tuesday.

"I feel very sorry for him," Armstrong said. "You don't want to lose one of your main competitors through a crash. There's another way to eliminate people."

Armstrong has ridden in many of Europe's quirkiest locations, but the sight of him trundling across a sun-parched field was a new experience.

In avoiding Beloki, who lay on his side and was then rushed to a hospital, Armstrong had no option but to skid off the road. To rejoin the race, he turned left into a field, rode a short way, then lifted his bike onto his shoulder, as he delicately trod down a small hill of about 3 feet.

Armstrong was not penalized for skipping the bend he missed when he went through the field because he didn't gain time and didn't do it on purpose.

He got back on the road as a swarm of riders zoomed past him. Among them was Hamilton, a former U.S. Postal Service teammate, who patted Armstrong on the back as he cycled past.

"I was lucky that the field was there like that," Armstrong said after finishing fourth in the stage. "It could have been full of crops, it could be a drop off. I was lucky."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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