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Tour de France: Lance Armstrong's last stand almost succeeded

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Ever since Lance Armstrong crashed at the worst moment at the start of an Alps climb nine days ago, and lost nearly 12 minutes to the lead, he immediately faced the reality that he would not win. He also immediately recalibrated his own goals -- to try and get RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer to the podium (also not working out well so far), getting RadioShack a team victory (still possible) and getting himself or Leipheimer or Chris Horner a stage win.

Tuesday was the day Armstrong went after that stage win. It was the hardest day of racing so far: This Stage 16 includes four major Pyrenees mountain climbs and is at a point, on the day before the final rest day, when riders, even ones younger than the 38-year-old Armstrong, are clinging to the race with only the hope of making it to Sunday's finish in Paris.

But Armstrong attacked, early and often Tuesday. He tried a breakaway and was caught. He chased down a solo breakaway and with American teammate Horner and a small group of others, caught the solo rider. But then it came down to a sprint to the finish, and there just wasn't enough sprint left in Armstrong.

"It was harder than I expected," Armstrong told reporters at the finish line. "It's been awhile since I sprinted. Just not quick enough. I'm not the best guy in the race but I still have the spirit of a fighter."

Wednesday is a rest day and Thursday is the final, tough, mountain stage where it is expected leader and defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain and last year's runner-up, Andy Schleck  of Luxembourg,  will reengage in riding anger.

It is generally acknowledged that Schleck needs 90 seconds of lead time on Contador heading into Saturday's individual time trial. Contador took an eight-second lead Monday when the Spaniard, who rides for Astana, sped past Schleck, who rides for Saxo Bank, after Schleck lost the chain at the foot of a climb and had to stop just when he was to attack.

After being booed on the podium and first claiming he was unaware of Schleck's mechanical troubles, Contador changed his tune a little Tuesday and, on YouTube, apologized to Schleck, who had said Monday that his stomach was "full of anger" over what Contador had done.

Tuesday, meanwhile, was probably Armstrong's final chance to win one last stage at the event where he became a worldwide star. "Lance Armstrong is over in about four days," he said.

His last Tour has been plagued by bad crashes and bad luck (an inopportune flat tire on a cobblestone patch in Stage 3 was a portent of the slew of crashes that were to come). Armstrong's ride has also been marked by constant questions about what trouble may be ahead for him as a federal investigation looks into charges former teammate Floyd Landis has recently made accusing Armstrong of participating in illegal performance-enhancing doping when both rode for the U.S. Postal Service team.

Armstrong has consistently denied Landis' charges and he has said the controversy has not been a distraction -- that instead it's only been karma that has caught up with him. During his seven straight victories from 1999 through 2005, Armstrong never had badly timed equipment failures or injury-causing crashes. "That just was good luck," Armstrong said last week. "It evens out."

Still, Tuesday's attacking ride showed the fight still left in Armstrong. His sixth-place finish in the stage wasn't what Armstrong had aimed for at the start of the day. But it brought him appreciative applause from the crowds. And at least Armstrong tried for one more extravagant Tour de France moment. 

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Lance Armstrong is cheered by a fan as he rides in the Col du Tourmalet pass on his way to a sixth-place finish in the 16th stage of the Tour de France between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Pau. Credit: Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images

 
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