In the Flats, Armstrong, Ullrich Play Waiting Game

Times Staff Writer

These are the days, two of them, when Lance Armstrong stays close to his United States Postal Service teammates.

Armstrong, the leader of the Tour de France by 1 minute, 7 seconds over Germany's Jan Ullrich with only the last three of 20 stages left to ride, was in a red, white and blue cocoon during Thursday's numbingly flat stage between Dax and Bordeaux.

He finished in 28th place, out of trouble and with his lead unchanged. Ullrich finished 27th.

The route wandered out of the Basque country, where the fans were wrapped in the orange T-shirts of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team of their homeland, and into the richest wine country in the world.

Servais Knaven of the Netherlands won the 112-mile 17th stage in 3:54.23. Knaven, who had never won a Tour stage before, cried.

Armstrong and Ullrich finished safely in a pack. They will probably do the same in today's equally flat trip from Bordeaux to Saint-Maixent-l'Ecole in Brittany.

Armstrong -- who is zeroing in on his fifth consecutive Tour de France win, an accomplishment only Spaniard Miguel Indurain can claim -- and Ullrich, the 1997 winner, are marking time until Saturday's pivotal 30-mile time trial.

Knaven, 32, who rides for the Italian Quick Step Davitamon team, wept as he said, "I've always been second, third, fourth in a stage. Today I won. Incredible."

There were few chances Thursday and there probably will be few today for Armstrong or Ullrich to attack.

So Thursday, both Armstrong and Ullrich rode conservatively, keeping an eye on each other and letting their teammates set the pace and provide protection. Armstrong has already had two crashes and one near-miss during this Tour.

He was knocked down in the mass crash near the finish line of the first stage and was taken down again when a fan's bag caught in his handlebars during his attack up the Luz-Ardiden climb Monday.

And Armstrong had to perform a quick maneuver to avoid a collision when Joseba Beloki crashed out of the race during the first week.

Ullrich gained 96 seconds on Armstrong in the first individual time trial July 18.

Armstrong suffered from dehydration during that race in temperatures that were more than 100 degrees.

The weather has turned cooler so far this week and Armstrong has said since Monday that he's feeling stronger.

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At a Glance

*--* Highlights of the 17th stage: * Stage: Dax to Bordeaux, a 112-mile flat, quick route ending in the renowned wine region of Bordeaux * Winner: Netherlands cyclist Servais Knaven, of the Quick Step-Davitamon team, in 3 hours, 54 minutes, 23 seconds * How others fared: Germany's Jan Ullrich, a Tour winner in 1997, finished 27th; Lance Armstrong was 28th; Spain's Iban Mayo was 37th; Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov was 41st * Yellow jersey: Armstrong retained the overall lead with a time of 74:40.28 -- 1:07 ahead of closest challenger Ullrich * Next stage: Today's 18th stage is another flat route favoring sprint specialists -- a 126-mile course from Bordeaux to Saint-Maixent-l'Ecole * On the Web: For live updates of each day's Tour de France stage, complete standings, cyclist profiles and course information, go to latimes.com/tour

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