With all eyes fixated on Monday’s incident between Alberto Contador and rival Andy Schleck, Armstrong powered a breakaway during the mountainous Stage 16 from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Pau.
But he couldn’t create a storybook ending; Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo won a sprint finish among the breakaway riders. It was France’s sixth Tour win this year – its most since 1997.
“[The sprint] was harder than I expected,” Armstrong admitted to reporters, says he was “just not quick enough.”
Saving his legs
Over the first two Pyrénéan mountain stages, he lost almost 15 minutes of time.
“That was definitely on purpose,” Bruyneel told the Associated Press. RadioShack is now tied for the lead in team standings, with Armstrong's teammate Christopher Horner – who stuck with him to the finish today – climbing to 14th overall.
The tactic worked
On four mountain climbs today, including the devastating Col du Tourmalet, Armstrong was able to pace himself and even respond to attacks, unlike last Sunday’s Stage 8 in Morzine, where he famously said, "My Tour's finished."
Today, as the eight-man breakaway powered toward the stage’s last summit, the Col d’Aubisque, Armstrong looked rejuvenated as fans waving Texas flags ran alongside him.
But the 38-year-old made sure to remind fans after the race that this will be his last Tour de France.
“Lance Armstrong is over in about four days,” he said, referring to the final stage in Paris on Sunday. But the Lance brand, which has broadened far beyond the Tour, is likely to live on even once he finishes his 13th Tour this weekend.
Schleck and Contador détente
The rivalry between Contador and Schleck, who lost the yellow jersey after a mechanical issue on yesterday’s final climb, was supposed to heat up on Tuesday – with Schleck vowing 'revenge.'
Instead, it was reduced to a simmer after Contador released a YouTube apology overnight.
“The race was in full gear and maybe I made a mistake,” he said to the viewing public. “I’m sorry."
Before today’s race, Contador continued his mea culpa – meeting with Schleck in Bagnères-de-Luchon to talk things through.
“He came this morning to talk and explained everything to me – it’s over for me now,” Schleck told French radio. “You have to forget quickly in a business like this.”
Fans weren’t as kind – after the race they once again whistled in displeasure at Contador before Schleck, nearby, asked them to stop.
Fireworks on Thursday
Today’s terrain also prevented much action among the leaders – a 37-mile descent to the finish reduced chances for a solo attack by Schleck. Riders ride faster in bunches, especially on flat and downhill courses, so he would have had to put in the effort of a lifetime to stay out in front.
“If I had gone in the last 70 kilometers, I would have died,” he said.
After tomorrow’s rest day, the second of two in this three-week race, the final mountain stage is on the docket for Thursday, a 108-mile venture that ends atop the brutal Col du Tourmalet.
Schleck has already promised fireworks.
“Thursday we will see a big attack,” he said.
IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France