American cyclist Lance Armstrong held onto the lead after Monday's mountainous ninth stage of the Tour de France, after narrowly avoiding a serious crash that knocked one of his top challengers, Spaniard Joseba Beloki, out of the race.
Beloki was in second place and finished second behind Armstrong last year. But he crashed hard when he blew a tire as his bike sped around a bend on the rapid downhill section near the finish. Armstrong, who was just behind Beloki as they neared the end of the 184.5 kilometer stage to Gap, narrowly avoided plowing into the Spaniard.
Armstrong swerved off the road into a grass field, while Beloki was taken away in an ambulance. Tour doctors later confirmed that he had broken his right leg near the hip and also sustained wrist and elbow fractures. After the race Armstrong said he had never been that scared. He called it "a real panic" and said "in a moment like that, it's only a reflex of survival."
Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won the stage in five hours and two minutes, beating the next 10 riders by 36 seconds. Paolo Bettini of Italy finished second and Iban Mayo of Spain was third. Armstrong was fourth, good enough to hold onto the overall leader's yellow jersey. Vinokourov moves into second place overall, 21 seconds behind Armstrong.
Armstrong, who rides for the U.S. Postal Service team, is trying to win a record-tying fifth straight Tour de France.