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Armstrong avoids crash, keeps lead at Tour de France

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GAP, France — Lance Armstrong escaped a harrowing crash in the Alps today, riding into a field to avoid a fallen rival but keeping his overall lead in the Tour de France.

Joseba Beloki had been second overall behind Armstrong and is out of cycling's premier race with a broken right leg, right elbow and right wrist.

Armstrong, bidding for a record-tying fifth consecutive title, made a strong recovery to finish fourth in the ninth stage on Bastille Day.

"I was scared like never before," said Armstrong, who took the leader's yellow jersey Sunday. "It was a real panic. In a moment like that, it's a survival instinct."

Beloki hit the road hard when he slipped off his bike around a bend on a rapid descent with less than 5 miles to go. Armstrong was right behind and just missed plowing into the Spaniard.

Beloki, the 2002 runner-up behind Armstrong, was conscious when taken to a hospital in an ambulance. His arm was to be placed in a cast, doctors said.

To avoid Beloki, Armstrong rode into a field next to the road. He bumped across the sun-burnt grass, cutting off a hairpin bend. At the end of the field, he got off his bike, carried it to the road, got back on and sped off.

"You can't train for that so it's just a reaction," Armstrong said. "When you see something like that happening the first thing you think is where am I going to go? I couldn't go right, I could only go left and I found a little path into the field."

Armstrong was not penalized for skipping the bend because he did not gain time on rivals and did not do it on purpose.

The road where Beloki fell had become slick because of the summer heat.

"It was dangerous," Armstrong said. "All the corners were melting. There was asphalt but it was bubbling."

Beloki realized he was going too fast into the corner and slammed his brakes, locking the back wheel and causing the tire to explode, Armstrong said.

Alexandre Vinokourov of Team Telekom took the 114.4-mile stage from Bourg d'Oisans to Gap. This was the Kazak's first Tour de France stage win, moving him into second place.

With 11 stages left in the three-week race, Vinokourov is 21 seconds behind Armstrong, who is trying to match the record of five straight Tour wins set by Spain's Miguel Indurain.

Vinokourov completed the stage in 5 hours, 2 minutes, averaging 22.8 mph. Armstrong was in a group of 10 riders that finished 36 seconds back.

"I've never been so close to the yellow jersey and I've always dreamed of it. ... Why not realize this dream?" Vinokourov said. "I'm motivated and I'll do my best."

Iban Mayo of Spain, winner of Sunday's climb to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez, is third, 62 seconds behind the leader. He is followed in the overall standings by Francisco Mancebo of Spain and Tyler Hamilton of the United States.

Vinokourov placed second at L'Alpe d'Huez on Sunday, powering away from Armstrong up the climb — as he did again today on the final ascent up La Rochette.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion from Team Bianchi, finished in fifth place in the same time as Armstrong and was sixth overall, 2 minutes, 10 seconds behind Armstrong.

Hamilton of Team CSC, battling through the mountains with a broken collarbone, was 10th in the stage.

Beloki crashed on the descent from Cote de La Rochette, a 2.5-mile climb. His back wheel skidded on the road before thumping onto the tarmac and slid into dirt by the side of the road.

"He was racing the race, and racing aggressively," Armstrong said. "It's a shame to see a guy who's out there, who's a real threat to the race, going down like that."

Vinokourov powered into the lead going up the slope and held it to the finish line, which was painted red, white and blue to celebrate France's national day today. Beloki and Armstrong were chasing Vinokourov when the Spaniard crashed.

The race took the riders past some of the most spectacular scenery so far, with glistening glaciers hugging mountain peaks, bubbling mountain streams and roads abutting cliffs in plunging gorges.

The riders scaled two peaks of more than 6,600 feet, including the 7,788-foot Col d'Izoard, a desolate moonscape of rocks, scrappy grass and slopes above the tree line.

Armstrong faces a relatively flat stage Tuesday to the seaport of Marseille. Wednesday is a rest day.

A 29-mile individual time trial Friday leads into four days of Pyrenees climbs. If overtaken before Friday, Armstrong is fast enough to make up any deficit in a time trial. Yet he may need to be especially quick to bank some time for the grueling Pyrenees.