MORZINE-AVORIAZ, France, (Reuters) – Lance Armstrong’s hopes of winning an unprecedented eighth Tour de France were ruined yesterday when the first Alpine stage proved too much for him to handle.
Riding his last Tour, the 38-year-old American, who had ‘the hardest day’ in his cycling life in a Tour stage to Morzine in 2000, suffered even more 10 years later, finishing 11 minutes 45 seconds behind stage winner Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
“The Tour is over but I’m gonna hang in there,” Armstrong, his face a mask of pain, told reporters after crossing the line.
Australian Cadel Evans seized the overall lead after the stage, a 189-km trek from Les Rousses, was dominated by Schleck, who attacked one kilometre from the finish.
Last year’s runner-up Schleck, who had never won on the Tour, is 20 seconds behind in second. Alberto Contador is in third place, 1:01 off the pace, after the defending champion could not respond to the attack.
Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain was second with Dutchman Robert Gesink in third place, while Spaniard Contador ended up fifth on the day.
Briton Bradley Wiggins, who finished fourth overall last year, cracked in the final ascent to Avoriaz, a 13.6-km effort at an average gradient of 6.1 percent, and lost 1:45.
Following a promising performance in the prologue, Armstrong lost ground on the cobblestones earlier this week and he looked his age yesterday.
The seven-times champion came off his bike after seven kilometres when he got involved in a massive pile-up and then crashed 51 kilometres from the finish.
He changed bike and was helped back into the bunch by four team mates, with a graze on his left elbow — the same one he hurt in a crash at the Tour of California last May.
“Bad day, very bad day. It went from bad to worse,” he said.
The Texan was dropped midway through the Col de la Ramaz and Contador’s Astana team immediately upped the pace at the front of the pack.
The American reached the top of the climb with a one-minute deficit and despite the help of his RadioShack team mates, never made it back to the main bunch.
He even waved to them to slow down a bit so that he could stay with them.
To make matters worse, he was forced off his bike once more after a rider crashed in front of him with some 20 km left.
The look on his face at that moment said it all.
The question now is whether Armstrong, who used to hammer the competition in the first mountain stage in his 1999-2005 reign on the Tour, will have the mental strength to continue.