BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Lance Armstrong saw it coming: tight turns, narrow roads, big crowds and nervous riders would make crashes likely in Sunday's first stage at the Tour de France.
He sure was right.
The seven-time Tour champion emerged unscathed after at least six crashes bedeviled the sun-baked stage through Dutch and Belgian flatlands that was won by Alessandro Petacchi of Italy, who avoided a big pileup in the final straightaway.
Race leader Fabian Cancellara tumbled to the asphalt and defending champion Alberto Contador scraped a leg against another bike after he hit his brakes in the logjam that blocked the road. Neither was seriously hurt.
The 139-mile course from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Brussels, started out with three mid-stage crashes, one caused by a dog that darted into the pack, and finished with another three in the last two miles.
"Total mayhem," Armstrong said.
Even so, the overall standings didn't change. Tony Martin of Germany remained 10 seconds behind Cancellara, who won Saturday's prologue. Britain's David Millar was third, 20 seconds off the Swiss rider. Armstrong trailed another 2 seconds back and Contador was sixth, 5 seconds behind his American rival.
"Typical first stage: Everybody wants to be in the front, everybody nervous for crashes," Armstrong said, noting that a huge fan turnout on the roadsides was both good and bad.
"Millions and millions on the road, it's a blessing and a curse. It's so great to have so many supporters," he said. "It (also) makes the guys super nervous.
"And on these tight roads, with bad surfaces and a lot of turns, there shouldn't be any surprise that there are crashes there."
Two of Armstrong's best support riders on Team RadioShack -- fellow American Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden of Germany -- were among 12 riders who suffered cuts and bruises in the spills, according to the race doctor.
Adam Hansen of HTC-Columbia fell in an early crash. The Australian was getting X-rays for a suspected broken collarbone, the race doctor and his team said.
Top sprinters such as Britain's Mark Cavendish, who won six Tour stages last year, and Oscar Freire of Spain, crashed while negotiating a sharp turn in the last few miles. They returned to the race but were out of contention for the stage victory.
With those big names out of the picture, it appeared American sprinter Tyler Farrar might have an easy win. But in the last 200 yards he got bumped from behind, his bike was damaged and he had to walk it across the finish line.
"It's a shame because everything had gone so well and the team worked so hard for me," Farrar said. "But, that's sprinting."
Millar and Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso crashed after a dog darted into the pack around the 35-mile mark. Both returned to the race after sustaining scrapes and bruises.
Petacchi clocked 5 hours, 9 minutes, 38 seconds for the victory, screaming and thrusting his index fingers skyward as he crossed the finish. The 36-year-old Italian is riding his first Tour since 2004 -- the year after he collected four stage victories. Mark Renshaw of Australia placed second and Norway's Thor Hushovd was third.
Armstrong crossed in 55th place, Contador was 44th and Cancellara trailed in 130th. They received the same time as Petacchi under race rules that award riders in the pack the same time if a crash takes place in the main group within the last two miles.
Over the years, Armstrong has made it a priority to avoid trouble in the often-flat early Tour stages. But this year's a bit different partly because of a treacherous run on cobblestones in Stage 3. Contenders will have to pedal hard -- if cautiously -- to keep from losing time in the overall title hunt there.
"It just shows how crazy it's going to be on Tuesday," the Texan said. "Same situation. Very small road. A lot of turns -- the nerves, and the intensity, will be high."
In the meantime, riders get another long and flat run Monday, with a 125-mile jaunt from Brussels to Spa.
Armstrong, who is gunning for a record eighth Tour victory, said that his razor-thin lead ahead of pre-race favorite Contador is inconsequential at this point.
"Five seconds in the scope of three weeks is terribly nothing," he said when asked whether his lead gives him a psychological edge over the Spaniard. "I don't want to instill the rivalry any more than it already is."