The Tour de France sank below sea level today.

A 10-rider crash on a narrow spit of land ensnared some of the top riders during the second stage of cycling's premier event.

The spill happened on the Passage du Gois, which connects a small island to the mainland in the coastal Atlantic Vendee region. The strip is no more than two car lengths wide and is usually submerged by water. It is closed during high tide.

The picturesque ocean causeway proved treacherous for such favorites as Alex Zulle, Michael Boogerd and Ivan Gotti. They lost valuable minutes when they were trapped behind the crash.

The day's racing began under brilliant skies, with the 109-mile stage won in a final sprint by Tom Steels of Belgium. Lance Armstrong of Texas lost the overall lead to Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu.

Another American, Jonathan Vaughters, fractured his chin in the crash and had to drop out of the race. Vaughters and Armstrong both ride for the U.S. Postal Service team.

Armstrong, recovering from testicular cancer, is second overall. He is in excellent position for Sunday's time trial and the later mountain climbs.

"I just want to stay out of trouble until the real race begins on Sunday with the time trial," Armstrong said.

Kirsipuu earned bonus points in winning two of the day's three sprints. In third and fourth place were Mario Cipollini of Italy and Germany's Erik Zabel.

In another strong showing for U.S. Postal, George Hincapie came in sixth and is seventh overall.

Vaughters was taken to a hospital in Nantes, as was Marc Wauters, who also is out of the race.

With the summer holiday beginning for many French, thousands of vacationers lined the roads. They set up folding chairs and elaborate picnic tables along the road and leaned out of balconies in small villages.

The crash wasn't the first of the day--there was an earlier mishap at 21 miles involving 30 riders.

Along with the occasional anti-drug banner--"Say No to EPO"--many fans showed support for French cycling star Richard Virenque. He is under investigation for last year's race that was nearly cut short because of the drug scandal.

"Allez Richard--We Forgive You," said one banner held by two young children.

Race organizers say there will be spot drug tests during the coming days.

Armstrong won the world championship in 1993 and competed in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996.

In October 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He had surgery to remove his right testicle and brain lesions, and returned to racing early last year.

He said today he thought the drug scandal was "exaggerated and overblown." He also complained about French police tactics during last year's busts.

"I'd like to think that nobody here has anything to hide," he said.

CAPTION: Belgian Tom Steels celebrates after winning one of the day's sprints over Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu. But at the end of the day, it was Kirsipuu who held the overall lead.