Lance Armstrong had never experienced such an ordeal in a time trial during his seven-year dominant spell on the Tour de France, yet he managed to save face by climbing to third place overall following Thursday’s stage marked by another astounding performance by his Astana teammate and rival Alberto Contador.
Three days before the race ends on the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong was in good position to achieve his main goal — a podium finish in Paris.
“That hurt like hell. Ran outta fuel and paid for yesterday’s effort I suppose. Happy to move to 3rd tho,” Armstrong said on his Twitter feed after finishing the 40.5km on the shores of the Annecy Lake in 16th position, 1 minute, 30 seconds behind race leader Contador.
The 26-year-old Spaniard now looks all but assured of his second Tour victory after increasing his overall lead to 4 minutes, 11 seconds and winning his third individual stage since his Tour debut in 2005, the year Armstrong won the race for the last time.
A time-trial master during his heyday, Armstrong was able to set a fast tempo for the first 18km but was then betrayed by his aging legs in a demanding 3.7km climb.
“I suffered. I probably started too hard and maybe I was just empty from yesterday and those cramps I suffered at the end of the stage,” Armstrong said about Wednesday’s last alpine stage.
“I felt good at the beginning, I felt smooth, but there was a tail-wind, so maybe everyone felt good,” the 37-year-old Texan said. “I just wasn’t that strong on the climb.”
In building his record string of seven Tour wins from 1999 to 2005, Armstrong competed in 19 time trials and won 11 of them. He placed no worse than third in all the others except one — a short clock-race in Paris at the start of the 2003 Tour, where he was seventh.
Despite his setback, Armstrong — who is expected to ride another Tour next year — was unfazed.
“My ambition was to be on the podium, so I must be happy with that,” he said.
Even if he hasn’t got the same power and the same will to win than before, Armstrong has already achieved an amazing feat with his third place. Following three-and-a-half years of retirement, the Texan still surpassed more than 150 riders — most of them years younger than him.
His biggest remaining race challenge is set to be an uphill finish at the daunting Mont Ventoux today — where he never won. The threat for Armstrong is likely to come from Briton Bradley Wiggins, fourth overall and 11 seconds behind him.
Following his setback in Wednesday’s stage, where he was dropped by Armstrong, the former track cycling specialist bounced back with a sixth place in the time trial to renew his podium hopes.
After controlling all mountain stages, Contador proved he was a serious contender on all grounds at Annecy, beating Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland by 3 seconds.
Mikhail Ignatiev of Russia was third, 15 seconds back.
“I went all out,” said Contador, adding that his earpiece radio linking him with Astana team managers stopped working during the stage, and that his concerns about Cancellara’s skill at the time trial had worried — and motivated — him.
“I was in the car behind Alberto, I saw a nice show,” said Astana sports director Alain Gallopin. “The goal was just to secure the [overall] win but when we saw by the end that he could win the time trial, we pushed him to the limit. I am happy for him.”