TOURS, France — Leon van Bon of the Netherlands won the sixth stage of the Tour de France Thursday in another furious sprint finish.
France's Laurent Jalabert, who like the other Tour favorites finished well behind the breakaway sprinters, lost his overall lead. Italy's Alberto Elli of Deutsche Telekom became the new leader. Defending champion Lance Armstrong began the day in third place, 14 seconds behind Jalabert.
Thursday's mostly flat stage, with only one slow climb, covered 123 miles, rolling through Brittany toward Tours, passing by medieval fortress towns and two 15th century castles.
After only 8.7 miles, 12 riders made a breakaway, which they maintained all the way. At one stage, they led by nearly 13 minutes.
Van Bon's Rabobank teammate, Markus Zberg of Switzerland, was second. Frenchman Emmanuel Magnien of La Francaise des Jeux finished third.
With one quarter of the Tour nearly over, the race was looking good for past winners Armstrong, Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich.
Despite failing to win a stage this year, they were just behind the leaders, confident as the race headed south toward the mountains.
Armstrong, who rides for the U.S. Postal Service, was in the best position of the three, with few questions about his form and fitness.
Armstrong's camp said he was holding back until the Pyrenees mountains, where he hoped to take control of the race.
Ullrich, riding for Deutsche Telekom, should also thrive in the mountains, but his stamina is being questioned. The German has made it to the podium all three times he has participated in the Tour.
The most unpredictable of the three was Pantani, who was in 79th place, 5:26 behind Jalabert. But given the Italian's prowess in the mountain stages, few were counting him out.
The first mountain stage is Monday in the Pyrenees. Later, they head to the Alps.
On Wednesday, Germany's Marcel Wust won in a sprint finish in the medieval town of Vitre in Brittany, the Festina rider narrowly beating compatriot Erik Zabel of Deutsche Telekom.
Wust won by inches after a late burst in 4:19:05. Italy's Stefano Zanini of the Mapei team was third.
The riders had to withstand rain and wind for most of the 125-mile trek from Vannes on the Atlantic coast to Vitre. Most of the course was flat except for four climbs.
Armstrong finished 25th and trimmed 10 seconds off Jalabert's advantage. Jalabert was 59th.