Belfast Telegraph

Tour de France: Battling Lance Armstrong is denied a farewell gift

Lance Armstrong made what could well be his last ever appearance at the business end of affairs of the Tour de France yesterday, taking part in a day-long breakaway on the race's toughest mountain stage and finishing sixth.

As the most successful ever Tour champion, the American's presence on the stage which crossed the four cols used on the race''s first ever visit to the Pyrenees back in 1910 could hardly have been more symbolic.

However, one of Armstrong's most famous soundbites during his seven year domination of the Tour was ‘no gifts', and it was clearly a lesson that all eight of the other breakaways — with the obvious exception of RadioShack team-mate Chris Horner — had taken to heart.

Far from letting the American take a 25th Tour stage win out of nostalgia or respect for Armstrong, Quick Step's Carlos Barredo attempted a long distance attack 40 kilometres from the line at Pau. The Spaniard was only caught with barely a kilometre to go, so late in the day it was virtually certain that if the 38-year-old American wanted to win, outsprinting the rest of the break was his only real option.

Armstrong had deliberately failed to collaborate in chasing down Barredo to try and conserve as much energy as possible.

But even at the height of the American's powers, sprinting was always the weakest weapon in his armoury and yesterday that had not changed.

The group had barely started

accelerating towards the line before the American gave up and started freewheeling, with Pierrick Fedrigo of France taking his third stage win of his career, and France's sixth.

It says a lot for how quickly Armstrong's influence on the Tour is diminishing that Fedrigo said that the American was not the rider he had worried about the most in the break.

Although four stages remain, with the overall lead still in play it is unlikely that Armstrong will be allowed to return on the attack by either yellow jersey Alberto Contador — courteous enough to say he wished Armstrong had won yesterday's stage — or arch-rival Andy Schleck.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Contador's taking the lead on Monday when Schleck was stranded on the roadside thanks to a faulty bike chain rumbled on.

Clearly aware of the damage

he had done by breaking one of cycling's unwritten rules — that you don't attack a leader when he has a mechanical problem — Contador posted an apology overnight on Youtube, saying he had “made a mistake.”

“I didn't have obligation to make an apology, I did it because I wanted to and I didn't want our relationship to suffer,” he explained later.

Contador was booed for a second day running when he received the yellow jersey, but the huge hug he and Andy Schleck gave each other live on French television, coupled with Schleck telling fans to “stop that, everybody,” probably did a lot to lay the controversy to rest.

Whilst the overall is still very much up for grabs, Mark Cavendish's chances of taking the points classification shrank a little more after Norway's Thor Hushovd won the bunch dash for tenth. Hushovd's charge for the line regained him the overall lead in that classification and widened his advantage to 29 points with just two sprint stages remaining, on Friday and Sunday.

For Cavendish, the dream of green in Paris is looking increasingly elusive.

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