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Armstrong slams Versus for poor Tour of California coverage

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- One of the most egregious televised sports interruptions since the Jets and Raiders gave way to a pigtailed Swiss girl four decades ago, occurred on Tuesday.

But unhappy sports fans have a powerful voice on their side.

"Who's the dumbass @versustv that cut off @AmgenTourofCali coverage w/ a mile to go for pregame hockey?? #pathetic"

That was the tweet posted by Lance Armstrong, after Versus cut away from the final two kilometers of Stage Three of the Tour of California.

As three of the favorites in the race came sprinting toward the sparkling Pacific Ocean, with the peloton quickly closing the gap, Versus ignored both the visuals and the suspense and switched over to NHL hockey. Pregame NHL hockey.

When David Zabriskie edged out both Michael Rogers and Levi Leipheimer -- and wasn't even sure himself if he won, it was so close -- the only folks who actually saw the result were lining the finish in downtown Santa Cruz.

And the man who put Versus on the map -- the former Outdoor Life Network was a nobody in the broadcasting world until it found itself covering Armstrong's domination of the Tour de France -- was not happy.

The Versus glitch was one more pothole in what has been a bumpy start to the fifth annual Tour of California.

The race was moved to May, after rains interrupted coverage and created miserable conditions in the previous February timeslot. Though the switch in schedule put the California race smack up against one of cycling's legendary competitions - the Giro d'Italia - the race has still managed to attract an impressive field.

But weather has continued to plague the Tour of California. A rare May deluge turned Monday's stage -- starting in the country's best bike town, Davis, and ending in the photogenic wine country of Santa Rosa -- into a desultory affair. And the downpour shut down television coverage, grounding the airplanes. Only the final minutes of Stage Two racing aired.

Splice that together with what happened in Stage Three -- the entire race was televised except the climax -- and you have one full day of racing coverage. That wasn't exactly what the organizers bargained for.

"It's very frustrating that all of the scenarios we laid out still did not allow us to finish inside our window," said Tour spokesman Michael Roth.

Roth thought that the wet conditions on Monday may have taken a toll on the cyclists, causing Tuesday's stage to run slightly slower than predicted. Even the slight adjustment of moving the start time up by a few minutes is a major undertaking, involving the California Highway Patrol, cities along the routes and team adjustments.

But hopefully the gaffe won't happen again. Roth said the race received assurances from Versus that Wednesday's Stage Four would be shown in its entirety. Of course, no NHL playoff games are scheduled for Wednesday. In the pecking order, the cult of hockey ranks ahead of the cult of cycling.

"There are different hierarchies in contractual obligations," Roth sighed.

It would have been an interesting test to see if Versus would have cut away from the race if Armstrong were racing toward the finish. Though Versus is based in Philadelphia and the network cut to the Flyers-Canadiens game, hockey only came to Versus on the heels of its Tour de France, Armstrong-centric success.

But Armstrong isn't in the lead, which is not necessarily a setback to either the seven-time Tour de France champion or the Tour of California organizers. But it's creates a barrier to the casual cycling fan.

In Santa Cruz, as Leipheimer walked to the stage, one woman kept shouting "Go Lance."

When Armstrong launched this season with a handpicked team and a big-time sponsor in Radio Shack, the assumption was that he'd be back on top, and that the cycling world would be treated to an enmity-fueled battle in France with his former teammate and reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador.

But Amrstrong has had a quiet spring, due to a stomach virus and other issues. In his pre-Tour of California press conference he expressed doubts about his ability to contend.

"I'm a rider who a lot of times hasn't had a lot of doubts," Armstrong said. "But there are days I have doubts, to be honest. But nonetheless, I keep plugging away."

The Tour de France is six weeks away. Armstrong isn't expected to contend here. Instead, he will ride for Leipheimer, the three-time defending champion. A year ago, in rain and occasional snow flurries, Leipheimer took control on Bonny Doon, a steep climb in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On Tuesday, RadioShack attacked on a sunny Bonny Doon. Leipheimer was in the breakaway with Rogers and Zabriskie. But that wasn't exactly what he wanted.

"They're the two most dangerous guys in the whole race," Leipheimer said. " I didn't win, so obviously some mistake was made. I was missing a little something to make the big difference."

As the three racers came screaming into town, the course took a different path than it had a year ago, and the final sharp corner to the finish was tricky.

"I screwed up the finish," Leipheimer said. "I knew about the corner. Dave got the jump on us there."

But by that time, coverage had vanished from television screens.

"We're having a Heidi moment," someone said in the press tent.

About an hour later, the tweet came down. RadioShack might not have won the stage, but there's no doubt who's the boss of the Tour of California.

The wrath of Armstrong's twitter account -- the man has 2,494,971 followers -- has already forced an apology out of ESPN's Tony Kornheiser, who stupidly told people to run down cyclists earlier this year.

Maybe Armstrong can prod Versus to use common sense?

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