A day after a dramatic crash during an ocean crossing, the third stage of the Tour de France unfolded today on dry ground and in classic style.
Rolling into the countryside of Brittany, with black and white Breton flags fluttering along the route, the stage began with an early breakaway and ended in a furious, shoulder-to-shoulder sprint.
Belgium's Tom Steels won the stage for the second straight day, timing his attack perfectly and surging past his rivals across the finish line, arms outstretched.
Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia kept the yellow leader's jersey. Steels moved into second place overall, followed by Abraham Olano of Spain and Lance Armstrong of the United States. Armstrong's teammate on a strong U.S. Postal Service team, George Hincapie, is sixth.
Armstrong, making a remarkable comeback from testicular cancer, is waiting for Sunday's time trial and then the mountain stages to mount his challenge.
But this week, in the early flat stages, it is the sprinters who excel.
Today's 122-mile route stretched through picturesque northern countryside from the city of Nantes, which straddles the Loire River, to the town of Laval. Two riders, Frederic Guesdon and Massimo Giunti, broke away early and maintained their lead for 76 miles. But they were caught by the pack late in the race, making way for the sprinters.
The pack maintained a swift pace, averaging 27 mph for the day. The final sprint came at a blistering 42 mph.
Steels had a winning time of 4 hours 29 minutes 27 seconds. He was followed by Erik Zabel of Germany, Stuart O'Grady of Australia, Nicola Minali of Italy and Hincapie. Armstrong finished 24th.
Young fans along today's route were well aware of the drug scandal that has enveloped the sport. While most preferred to enjoy the race, some were skeptical about efforts to stamp out drug use.
Spanish exchange student Jose Luiz Catala was enjoying a folk concert in Nantes before the riders came through.
"I think all the players are doped," said Catala, 17. "You know why? Because you can't win on a plate of spaghetti. You need more."
His friend, Joan Albert Lairon, sporting red and yellow paint on his cheeks, agreed.
"Doping is fair if they all do it," he said. "The problem comes when only some do. That's why it's wrong.
"It's only a bit dangerous -- no more than smoking cigarettes," he added.
Cycling's governing body said 16 cyclists -- none elite riders -- have been certified to race with a hematocrit level that exceeds the 50 percent limit. The hematocrit level measures the proportion of red blood cells in a blood sample -- one sign of drug use, since the substances increase red blood cells. The International Cycling Union noted that 3 percent of the global population has a hematocrit level higher than 50 percent.