ARENBERG, France — Just four days into the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong is off to a rough start.
On the cobblestones in Tuesday's third stage, on which he had been expected to excel, the seven-time champ instead popped a tire, lost time changing it and fell back of his main rivals.
The 132-mile ride from Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut in France was the most dreaded stage of the first week — with seven sections of bone-jarring cobblestones that threatened injury, bike damage or lost time for title contenders.
Thor Hushovd of Norway, leading a six-man group, won the stage in a final sprint. Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider who won the prologue, was right behind — and recovered the leader's yellow jersey he had ceded Monday to Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel.
For Armstrong, the bigger threats are riders such as defending champion Alberto Contador, 2009 runnerup Andy Schleck and two-time runnerup Cadel Evans.
All leapfrogged Armstrong and will be tough to overcome when the next big challenges await in the Alps in the second week and a four-day run in the Pyrenees in the third.
"Our chances took a knock (Tuesday)," said Armstrong, 38. "I'm not going home; we'll stay in the race and keep trying."
Astana team leader Contador avoided disaster and rode the last 18 miles with the brake jammed against his rear wheel.
"I knew that if I changed the bike would be much worse, and I preferred to continue with the wheel braking," he said. "I couldn't stand up, but hey, we saved the day."
Schleck was fifth in the stage, clocking the same time as Hushovd: 4 hours, 49 minutes, 38 seconds. In the splintered pack, Contador was 13th, 1:13 back. Armstrong placed 32nd — 2:08 behind.
Overall, Cancellara leads Geraint Thomas by 23 seconds, and two-time Tour runnerup Evans is 39 seconds back. Contador is ninth, 1:40 back, Schleck is sixth, 1:19 back, and Armstrong sank to 18th, 2:30 back, after entering the day in fifth overall.
"It's very frustrating," Armstrong said. "I'm not going to make any excuses."
Frank Schleck, Andy's brother, who won the Tour of Switzerland last month, crashed on the fourth section. He was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a broken left collarbone.