Lance Armstrong this evening admitted that a disastrous Stage 8 of the Tour de France in which he suffered two crashes and was held up behind a third meant that his dream of winning the race for an unprecedented eighth time was over after finishing nearly 12 minutes behind his chief rivals for the general classification.
The Texan, who knows a thing or two about comebacks, having conquered cancer to win a record breaking seven editions of the race between 1999 and 2005 and emerged from a three-year retirement last year to claim a podium place in Paris, acknowledged that on his way to the stage finish in Morzine-Avoriaz, he had time to reflect on the fact that this time, there would be no return.
Armstrong had been paced back to the peloton after a crash that also involved world champion Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, who wears the maillot jaune tonight, and mountains classification leader Jerome Pineau of Quick Step, but it was a second crash 50km from the finish, after his pedal clipped the kerb on the exit of a roundabout, that proved decisive.
Once again, his RadioShack team mates got him back to the peloton but with 38km left, he was dropped on the way up the Col de La Ramaz, the day’s last but one climb, and continued to fall further back from there to the finish.
“There was a roundabout before La Ramaz,” Armstrong explained afterwards, with his comments reported by Reuters. “I clipped a pedal and the front tyre rolled off. Next thing I know I was rolling on the ground at 60/65 kph. It was just hard to come back (to the main pack). We didn't make it back until the start of La Ramaz."
Armstrong has already announced that this will be the last time he competes in the race he once dominated, and confessed that he knew his chance of adding an eighth title had disappeared well before the end of the stage.
"I had a couple of hours to think about it at the end of the stage. I tried to take my time, look around, appreciate the fans and I know that it's not gonna be my year," he said.
The 38-year-old, who was also bidding to become the oldest rider to win the Tour de France – the record is held by Belgium’s Firmin Lambot, who was aged 36 when he claimed victory in 1922 – added: "Obviously the Tour is finished for me but I can stay in the race, try to win stages, help the team, try to appreciate my time here, appreciate the fact that I'm not coming back here."
RadioShack Team Manager Johan Bruyneel, who engineered each of Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins at US Postal Service and Dscovery Channel, said: "It's the end of Lance's aspirations to win the Tour. Everything went wrong.”
He continued: "It's sad to see but it's the race, it's sport. He was beaten by bad luck. We knew winning the Tour was possible, we had ambitions.
"Once he saw he could not make it back [to the group containing the GC contenders], he laid down the arms."
One wonders what emotions Floyd Landis, who is reported to have been following the race on TV back home in the United States, must have undergone while watching today’s stage.
Armstrong’s former US Postal Service team mate may not be in France, but much like Banquo’s ghost, he has lurked as an uninvited and unwanted presence over the RadioShack camp at this year’s Tour as a result of his doping allegations against the Texan, Bruyneel and others.
What’s more, Landis’s name will be forever linked with Morzine, the town where today’s race and Armstrong’s hopes ended, after his phenomenal ride on a different route to today’s race in Stage 17 in 2006 that put him right back in contention to become the first man to claim the yellow jersey in Paris after his former team leader’s seven-year winning streak.
Landis, riding for Phonak that year, moved into yellow on the penultimate day’s time trial, but was subsequently stripped of the overall title after it emerged that he had tested positive for excessive levels of testosterone after the Morzine stage, something he finally admitted two months ago after four years of fighting to clear his name.
Meanwhile, world champion Cadel Evans continued to defy the curse of the rainbow jersey by riding into the maillot jaune, although to be fair the Australian was hanging on for grim death in the group containing the main overall contenders as eventual stage winner Andy Schleck, quickly joined by Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez, made his decisive attack inside the closing two kilometres.
Of course, it’s not the first time the BMC Racing rider has worn the yellow jersey, having held it for Stages 10-14 of the 2008 Tour de France, when he finished runner-up to Carlos Sastre, and Evans also achieves the rare distinction of having held the race leader’s jersey of each of cycling’s Grand Tours within the same 12-month period, having spent a day at the top of the general classification of the Vuelta last September, and the Giro d’Italia in May.
After being presented with the maillot jaune following today’s stage finish, Evans was reported on the Tour de France website as saying: “I can’t quite believe it just yet. The cameras probably didn’t catch the crash in the first kilometres. I hit the ground pretty hard but fortunately I took all the impact on my arm and not on my legs but it make it a hard day even harder.”
He continued: “In the end, Schleck went away but I had to conserve a little bit. It wasn’t an easy stage and the wind made it difficult to judge in the final but at this point I’m in a great position. I’ve got an advantage over Contador and when you look at our history that’s a good thing to have.”
The Australian revealed that Astana’s tactics today of forcing the pace at the front of the group had played into his hands. “When Armstrong is dropped, Contador wants to put him as far out of the classification as possible and the way Astana rode put us in a really good position,” he explained.
“That’s why we prepared so carefully for the day on the cobbles because it allowed me to put time into Contador – and we’ve got to do that whenever we can,” Evans continued.
Meanwhile, Andy Schleck, whose brother Fränk crashed out of the race on the cobbles on Stage 3 after sustaining a broken collarbone, claimed that he could take encouragement from the fact that Contador, to whom he finished second in the general classification last year, was unable to follow him when he made his attack.
“I take some really good morale from knowing that I could attack and not have Contador follow me. Maybe he takes it the other way but I’m happy. For me it’s a fantastic stage win – everything worked out to be perfect. It’s hard but the team can have confidence in me and I promise to them that I’ll fight until Paris – I’ll fight until I fall off my bike.”
The Team Saxo Bank rider, who is currently in the white jersey in the young riders classification and lies second overall behind Evans, continued: “I hope you’ll see me in the yellow jersey as soon as possible but I predict… ah, the Pyrenees, but admitted “I miss my brother when I’m riding up there at the front of the peloton and I’m suffering and hurting.”
Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins was one of those who suffered today as he was dropped inside the closing four kilometres, eventually coming home 19th on the stage to leave him 14th on the general classification, 2 minutes 45 seconds behind Evans.
"I felt pretty good for most of the day, especially on the second-to-last climb. But just as we went up the last climb I just couldn't hold on at the end,” Wiggins said afterwards, as reported by the Team Sky website.
"There came a point where I just had to back off because otherwise I would have completely exploded. It just became a damage limitation exercise from that point in."
The British rider admitted that temperatures soaring into the thirties this week had taken their toll, saying “I've struggled with the weather the last few days but I did my best and that's all you can do in that situation.’
“I'm happy to admit that I wasn't quite good enough today, but there's still a lot of the race left so we'll see what happens," he continued.
After tomorrow’s rest day, Tuesday’s Stage 9, which covers 204.5km from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, provides a further mountain test, the most by far of the day’s climbs being the 28km ascent of the Hors Categorie Col de La Madeleine followed by nearly 20km of descending towards the finish.
The length and difficulty of the climb, which has an average gradient of 6.2% but in sections nudges double figures, makes it an ideal place for attacks to be launched, with some significant time gaps likely to open up, while any of the more courageous and skilled descenders who manage to make it up to the summit at the front of the race will fancy their chances of soloing to a stage win.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.