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Armstrong content to be back in the pack

For Lance Armstrong, finishing 54th Monday made for a good day _ perfect, actually _ on the Tour de France.

It may seem strange that the four-time champion is, for the moment at least, happy to hang back as he chases a record-tying fifth victory.

Experience has taught Armstrong there is little point in exhausting himself up front and risk being caught in crashes when there are 18 days of racing and many hard, long miles left.

For now, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team are happy to let other riders take the early stages that finish with fierce and sometimes dangerous sprints.

The Postals are setting their sights on crucial team time trials Wednesday and the Alps, where Armstrong aims to start powering away from his rivals up lung-burning climbs.

On Monday, Armstrong finished in a pack behind winner Baden Cooke of Australia in the second stage of the Tour. Armstrong was in 10th place overall.

"A team like us just hopes for the mountains to come as fast as they can and get out unscathed," Dan Osipow, the Postal Service team's general manager, said as the riders set out on the relatively flat 126.8-mile second stage of the Tour to Sedan, a town near the border with Belgium.

Cooke, a sprinter who last year finished 127th, won Stage 2 in a dash at the finish, edging French rider Jean-Patrick Nazon and Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu.

The risks of the Tour's early stages, when riders have fresh legs and newcomers are adjusting to racing in the pack of nearly 200, were highlighted in the first stage Sunday.

Spain's Jose Enrique Gutierrez lost control of his bike on the final turn, causing a pileup that took out about 35 riders, including Armstrong. Armstrong wasn't badly injured but suggested the Tour think about leaving less-experienced cyclists behind.

"The biggest problem is 200 fresh guys," Armstrong said. "Given the intensity these days, 150 guys is a lot safer than 200.

"Some of the guys have never done the Tour, they want to take risks, sort of like cowboys."

Armstrong was 11 seconds behind overall leader Bradley McGee, an Australian sprint specialist who won the Tour's first event Saturday, a race against the clock through the streets of Paris.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and a key rival of Armstrong's, was fifth, five seconds ahead of the Texan.

Cooke never had won a Tour stage before Monday. "It's incredible. I can't believe it," he said. "The final sprint was very, very dangerous. Every day you take your chances."

McGee finished 52nd Monday, close enough to Cooke to retain the coveted yellow jersey worn by the overall Tour leader.

Armstrong's former teammate, U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, completed the stage with a fractured collarbone from Sunday's crash.

"I was aching all day, there was this really sharp pain. But if it was more than I could take then I would not have continued," Hamilton said after finishing 100th out of the 196 riders.

He was eighth overall.

Two other injured riders, Marc Lotz of the Netherlands and U.S. cyclist Levi Leipheimer, were unable to race.

100th Tour de France

MONDAY: Stage 2, 126.8 miles, La Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Sedan.

WINNER: Baden Cooke of Australia, 5 hours, 6 minutes, 33 seconds.

LANCE ARMSTRONG WATCH: He finished 54th in the

stage, putting him in 10th place overall. He was 11 seconds behind leader Bradley McGee of Australia.

TODAY: Stage 3, 104 miles, Charleville-Mezieres to Saint-Dizier.

TV: 9 a.m., Outdoor Life Network.