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Armstrong closes in on overall lead

LANCE Armstrong closed to within a second of the overall lead at the Tour de France after his Astana team won yesterday's team time-trial.

Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider with the Saxo Bank team, just retained the yellow jersey after the 39-kilometer ride in and around Montpellier.

Astana came in needing to beat Saxo by more than 40 seconds for Armstrong to take the yellow jersey.

He started the stage in third place and he and Astana exactly matched that 40-second deficit to Cancellara's team.

The Garmin Slipstream team was second, 18 seconds behind Astana.

Earlier, three crashes, including one involving Giro d'Italia winner Denis Menchov, marred the start of the fourth stage, though all the fallen riders got up and returned to the race.

The Russian was trailing a Rabobank teammate when he misjudged a left turn and skidded into the barriers shortly after the team took off on the ride.

"Nothing really happened, it was a slippery road," said Menchov after finishing the stage with a few scrapes and bruises on his arm. "It's nothing serious."

Menchov also crashed in the last individual time-trial of the Giro.

A chaperone was waiting as Menchov arrived at the team bus to escort him to an anti-doping control. The Russian said he has been tested already four times this year - before yesterday's check.

"It's normal. It means that they consider me one of the race favorites," he said. The Russian was in 56th place overall before the start of the very technical stage, 2 minutes, 12 seconds behind Cancellara.

Four riders on the BBox Bouygues Telecom team also crashed, as did Jurgen van den Broeck, a lieutenant of two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans on the Silence Lotto squad.

In the stage, teams set off one by one at seven-minute intervals in a race against the clock. The course through sun-baked streets of Montpellier, near the Mediterranean, was among the flattest.

As teams crossed the finish, their first five riders tallied the same times while any laggards have individual times. The teams all have nine riders except Quick Step; one on the Belgian squad quit the race after a crash in Stage 2.

Under Tour rules, any rider who doesn't finish within the best team time plus 25 percent can be eliminated from the race - though race stewards can grant exceptions.

Caisse d'Epargne riders started first. The teams set off in reverse order of the team rankings, meaning that Astana started last.

Armstrong took advantage of a late breakaway during Monday's third stage to move up to third while his rival and teammate Alberto Contador and the other favorites were trapped in the peloton. Contador was third overall yesterday, 19 seconds back.

It was the first team time trial at the Tour since 2005.

The Tour ends on July 26 in Paris.


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