The Tour de France is going so badly for Lance Armstrong that he's starting to talk about the almost unthinkable: losing.
With Armstrong still not firing on all cylinders, rising star Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan took advantage Sunday, pulling away from the four-time champion in the last lung-burning climb.
Having started the day 61 seconds back, Vinokourov closed his gap with overall leader Armstrong to just 18 seconds. That leaves him, Armstrong and 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, just 15 seconds back, locked in a suspenseful battle with only six days of racing to the winner's podium in Paris.
Since three Alpine stages a week ago, Armstrong has complained about his form and a crushing heat wave that has scorched the Tour. Instead of being his usual dominant self, he's struggled to stay a whisker ahead of his rivals.
"Something's not going right and there's nothing I can do about that now. All I can do is wake up every morning and do my best," Armstrong said. "I'm not going to cry and whine. I'm just going to do my best."
Cutting his losses, Armstrong stuck with Ullrich, letting Vinokourov power ahead up the 1,563m Col de Peyresourde pass, the last of six climbs that made Sunday one of the hardest of four stages in the Pyrenees.
"It's obvious that I'm not riding as well as I have in the years past. I can't exactly say why," Armstrong said. "I'm still not 100 percent and when you're lacking and when you're missing form, you've just got to rough it."
Vinokourov placed sixth in the 191.5km stage, 43 seconds ahead of both Armstrong and Ullrich. They finished 11th and 12th, 1 minute, 24 seconds behind stage winner Gilberto Simoni of Italy. Ullrich's 15-second deficit to Armstrong overall did not change.
Armstrong has just two more days in the mountains that separate France and Spain and an individual time trial to the town of Nantes next Saturday.