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Lance Armstrong and the Discovery Channel team's hopes of winning the upcoming Tour de France have taken a significant knock over the weekend, when Viatcheslav Ekimov suffered injuries that have ruled him out of a place in the Tour. The Russian veteran was training with Armstrong in Texas on Saturday when he hit a hole in the road and crashed, fracturing his sternum and a vertabra.
Although quickly released from hospital in Austin, the 39 year old has been fitted with a surgical corset and returned home to St Petersburg, where he has been told to rest for several weeks.
"Of course we were concerned when he went down," Armstrong said of the incident. "But Eki's a really tough guy and he thought he was OK, just banged up. But later on the pain wouldn't stop so we went to a hospital and got him checked out."
Ekimov has ridden and completed 14 Tours, including the last five as a key domestique in what was until the end of last season the US Postal team. The Russian is hoping to continue for another season before retiring from the sport and is now aiming to return from this setback before the end of this season.
"He must stay completely immobilised for a long period," Discovery team manager Johan Bruyneel told L'Equipe. "The only good thing is that he's been told he won't suffer any long-term effects. I know what his motivation is like and I'm sure we'll see him again in the peloton."
Bruyneel added: "It's a big loss for the team because Eki is a real tower of strength for us. His professionalism, experience and enthusiasm make him one of my key men. With him in the team we are more at ease when we go into battle. We are going to miss him a lot."
Bruyneel said that, although important, Ekimov's loss for the Tour can be overcome because the Discovery team has huge strength in depth, and he still looking at 11 riders from which to pick the nine for the Tour. He also played down Armstrong's loss of the recent Tour de Georgia title to team-mate Tom Danielson. "He was not a very good level, but that wasn't worrying.
"His performance in the time trial there was average, but it was his first of the season. At that time last year he had already done three. This year he hadn't done any specific efforts in the discipline. Even though he was disappointed because he is not used to such setbacks, I wasn't very surprised. But I was very pleased with his attitude on the two mountain stages, and I'm sure that he has an important margin of progression. I am very confident."
Armstrong is due to return to Europe on May 20 to start his reconnaissance of the Tour's mountain stages.