MONTARGIS, France (AP) – No yellow jersey Wednesday. No race Thursday.

It didn’t take Lance Armstrong long to make up his mind.

The six-time defending Tour de France champion tried to start the day without the leader’s yellow jersey on his back, a gesture of sportsmanship to honor the former bearer, who lost it when he crashed a day earlier.

Race officials, though, wouldn’t hear of it.

So the 33-year-old Texan relented and then cruised to another day in the overall lead.

“It’s nice to have the yellow jersey, but it’s not critical.

The one that matters the most is July 24th,” he said, referring to the last day of the grueling race.

Armstrong captured the race lead Tuesday from compatriot David Zabriskie, a Team CSC rider and former Armstrong teammate, who crashed into a barricade in the final moments of the team time trial.

Out of “respect” for Zabriskie, Armstrong set off in the pre-race ride wearing his blue and white Discovery Channel uniform – but race officials stopped everybody before the starting line and asked Armstrong to put on le maillot jaune.

“There was no problem, just a little confusion in the beginning, having not started in the jersey,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t feel that it was right to start in the jersey.”

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc then got strict about the rule book, which states that the overall race leader “must wear” the yellow jersey.

“There was no negotiation,” Armstrong told France-2 television. “Jean-Marie said: You don’t start in the jersey, and you don’t start tomorrow.’ So I said OK.’

“It didn’t feel right to take the jersey on somebody else’s misfortune, but Jean-Marie had other ideas,” he said. “I wanted to try and do the right thing and make some sort of a sporting gesture.”

Zabriskie expressed appreciation for it, and said Armstrong had spoken to him after the race: “He was nice.”

Declining to wear the yellow jersey after its bearer crashes is nothing new. In 1971, the great Eddy Merckx took the race lead after a spill by Luis Ocana, but opted not to wear the jersey the next day. In 1998, Britain’s Chris Boardman crashed in stage two and Germany’s Erik Zabel decided not to don the yellow shirt for the third stage.

Spared the crashes and strokes of bad luck that have befuddled others, Armstrong enjoys some breathing space between his main rivals in his quest for a seventh straight Tour victory.

He leads T-Mobile rider Alexandre Vinokourov by 1:21, CSC’s Ivan Basso by 1:26 and Jan Ullrich – the 1997 Tour winner – by 1:36. Ullrich was banged up in a training session a day before the Tour start and has not been in top form.

Armstrong’s game plan is to ride safe and easy through the early stages of the three-week race, waiting for the mountain stages, where he excels, to try to chisel out bigger gaps. He won’t go all-out now to hold the lead: His main goal is to wear yellow on the last race day.

On Wednesday, the nervous pack battled wind, intermittent rain and slick roads, and there were several crashes. Basso got caught up in one and suffered road rash on one leg.

Australia’s Robbie McEwen, of the Davitamon-Lotto team, won the stage in a sprint, outpacing Belgian Tom Boonen in second and Norway’s Thor Hushovd in third.

Armstrong cruised across the finish in 45th place in a pack of riders that clocked the same time as McEwen – 3 hours, 46 minutes – for the 113.7-mile ride from Chambord to Montargis.

With 6.8 miles left, the main pack of cyclists caught up with a small group that had broken out early. By the finish, only six of the 189 riders clocked times slower than McEwen’s pace.

The International Olympic Committee’s choice of London as the host city for the 2012 Games cast a pall over the stage. Tour organizers had helped promote Paris’ bid, and Leblanc said he was “a little sad” that the French capital had lost out.

“We’ve been hit by a sort of moroseness since the announcement about London’s victory. We have the feeling of having been beaten a bit unfairly,” he added, without elaborating.

Armstrong said he heard the news by radio in mid-course.

“I’m surprised by that decision,” Armstrong said. “It almost felt like it was over, like it was a sure thing – then to hear London …”

Thursday’s stage guides riders along another mostly flat stage, a 123.7-mile trek from Troyes to Nancy. Armstrong and company are upbeat, but wary of mishaps.

“These days are really … a lot of stress,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong’s team. “You want to stay safe and nothing to happen. But things are going good.”

AP-ES-07-06-05 1648EDT

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