GRENOBLE, France (AP) – Lance Armstrong finished back in the pack Friday during the fifth stage of the Dauphine Libere, while fellow American Levi Leipheimer lost the leader’s jersey after a crash on the final descent.

Armstrong was not looking to challenge for the lead after a tough time trial Wednesday and Thursday’s punishing climb up Mont Ventoux.

The six-time Tour de France champion finished 23rd, 9:36 behind winner Axel Merckx – the son of five-time Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx – and dropped from second to fourth in the overall standings.

Merckx used a solo breakaway in the French Alps to win the 136-mile leg from Vaison-la-Romaine to Grenoble in 5 hours, 15 minutes, 1 second. Inigo Landaluze took the overall lead with a second-place finish, 2:15 back.

Leipheimer, who led after four stages, sustained a bloodied elbow and several bruises from his spill. Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates asked the pack to slow down so Leipheimer could get back on his bike.

Armstrong’s teammate Benjamin Noval of Spain finished third, followed by Italy’s Eddy Mazzoleni and Paolo Bossoni.

Landaluze leads Merckx in the overall standings by 2:32. Leipheimer is 2:51 behind, while Armstrong is 3:12 off the pace.

“I feel in pretty good form,” Landaluze said. “But tomorrow will be a very hard stage. There could be some more gaps opening up.”

Landaluze’s depleted Euskaltel-Euskadi team is down to four riders – most teams have eight – making it harder to repel attacks from rivals.

He expects to struggle in the Alps on Saturday, when cyclists take on three steep climbs during the 96.1-mile route from Albertville to Morzine-Avoriaz.

“I will try and keep the jersey but we have a small team. There’s not many of us,” Landaluze said.

AP-ES-06-10-05 1257EDT


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