Lance Armstrong promised a shake up in the French Alps, but instead it was the seven-time Tour de France champion feeling shaken after one of his worst ever days racing.
Normally the one punishing others when the Tour hit the harsh mountains, Armstrong found himself on the receiving end, conceding that his ambitions of an eighth Tour title was at a premature end.
“The Tour’s finished for me,” Armstrong said after Luxembourg rider Andy Schleck won the stage to move within 20 seconds of race leader Cadel Evans of Australia.
The 38-year-old Texan finished Sunday’s eighth stage in 61st place after labouring in stifling heat, hauling his battered body up mountain passes he used to glide up.
In a chaotic and dangerous Tour, Armstrong is more than 13 minutes behind Evans ahead of Monday’s much-needed rest day.
“I have cuts everywhere,” Armstrong said. “Biggest problem is the left hip, which for riding is not the best.”
Dented pride should also be added to Armstrong’s list of ailments. He crossed the finish line with an unusual air of resignation.
Rather than think about Tour win No. 8, Armstrong is already in reminiscence mode with two full weeks still to go until Paris whose streets Armstrong used to swagger down swilling Champagne.
“No tears from me. I’ve had a lot of years here where it’s been very different, so I’m not going to dwell on today,” Armstrong said. “Really try and appreciate my time here, and the fact I’m not coming back here.”
The fist-pumping, hands-in-the-air showmanship of Armstrong’s glory era from 1999-2005 were faded memories after a ferocious day of climbing that proved too much for the Texan’s aging legs and weary mind.
Armstrong is in no doubt that, with a bad hip and a deficit of 13 minutes, 26 seconds on Evans and with more punishing Alpine climbs to come and the even-harder Pyrenees he may as well enjoy his last days in France.
“Look around, appreciate the fans and know that it’s not going to be my year,” he said.
Such defeatist talk would have seemed truly astonishing a few years ago.
But long gone are the days when Armstrong and his “Blue Train” the name given to his former U.S. Postal team-mates would control the race.
“During his period of domination, in the first mountain stage in high altitudes, he’d hit hard,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.
On Sunday, Armstrong was the one getting “pegged” as he called it.
His team was scattered all over a 189-kilometre trek from Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz that featured two steep climbs and an uphill finish.
Postal’s sleek Blue Train has been replaced by a mixture of RadioShack veterans past their prime like Andreas Kloeden and Chris Horner and young aspirants like Janez Brajkovic lacking the experience to salvage tough situations.
Armstrong’s glittering career may never be matched by the likes of defending champion Alberto Contador who was two Tour wins at the age of 27 and most certainly never will by Evans or Schleck.
But the trio sensed they could destroy Armstrong’s Tour hopes, and the opportunity was too good to miss.
Schleck pulled clear with less than a mile to go and won a two-man sprint ahead of Samuel Sanchez of Spain. Contador and Evans were 10 seconds back.
Armstrong’s day started badly an early morning anti-doping control he tweeted about and then became an unfolding nightmare.
With breakaway riders setting a frenetic pace early on, Armstrong narrowly averted a spill as he veered onto the roadside grass. Evans fell but quickly recovered.
Then about two-thirds of the way through, with the daunting La Ramaz pass looming, Armstrong tumbled as he rode through a roundabout in the fast-moving pack.
“I clipped the pedal and then my tire rolled off,” he said. “Then, the next thing I know, I was rolling along the ground, at 60-65 (kilometres) an hour.”
He got another bike and returned to the race with the back of his jersey torn, his skin scratched, and seeping blood that quickly dried in the 35-degree heat.
“It’s hard to recover from something like that,” Armstrong said. “I knew that even if I made it over Ramaz with the front guys I was going to be suffering.”
With only Horner helping him, Armstrong got dropped up La Ramaz by Schleck, Contador and Evans.
Approaching the final ascent up to Morzine-Avoriaz, Armstrong had to brake hard to avoid a rider who fell in front of him, and a couple more who slipped either side of him.
Armstrong’s handling skills remain sharp, and he stopped his bike with astonishing ease.
Then, Armstrong stood still, peering at the sprawled riders laying on the boiling tarmac and at that moment, and with no anger he understood that the Tour finally conquered him.
“It’s sad to see, but that’s the race, that’s sport. There’s a time for everything,” Armstrong’s RadioShack and former Postal manager Johan Bruyneel said. “It’s not the end of a myth today, it’s the end of the Tour de France, of Lance’s aspirations to win.”