TOULOUSE, France — Lance Armstrong clung to his slim overall lead today after one of the Tour de France's least punishing legs, finishing the stage 29th as he saved his energy for a crucial individual time trial.
Keeping the overall lead means the four-time champion will wear the yellow jersey in Friday's time trial, when riders race against the clock. With key rivals nipping at his heels, Armstrong said it may be the most important time trial he has ever raced in the Tour.
"The standings are very close," conceded Armstrong, who is trying for a record-tying fifth title.
Today's 95.2-mile stage, a relatively flat and short trajectory along southern France from Narbonne to Toulouse, was won by Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha, competing in his first Tour. Dutch cyclist Bram De Groot finished second, and Spanish rider Isidro Nozal was third.
"It's incredible, but I want to dedicate my win to my whole team," Flecha, who rides for iBanesto.com, said his powerful sprint to the finish.
Today's stage gave lesser-known riders a chance to grab the spotlight as the Tour's overall front-runners stayed behind, trying to avoid crashing.
Armstrong is 21 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan in the overall standings. Vinokourov finished 30th in the 11th stage.
The 1997 Tour winner, Jan Ullrich, finished in 22nd place, Spanish rider Francisco Mancebo was 23rd and Iban Mayo of Spain was 33rd. American Tyler Hamilton, who is competing despite a broken collarbone — finished 44th.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is following part of the Tour, returned the overall leader's yellow jersey to Armstrong when the 31-year-old Texan ascended the podium.
The slim lead Armstrong has as he embarks on the second half of cycling's showcase event has raised questions about whether the four-time champion can win a record-tying fifth title.
Armstrong scouted out the hilly 29.1-mile stage where the time trial will take place before the Tour began.
"I like the course because there's a little hill near the end, but we'll have to see at the end because the wind direction might change," he said.
To keep rivals at bay, Armstrong also needs to do well in the Pyrenees mountains, four grueling stages of leg-crushing cycling that begin Saturday.