This was an unusual sight, bordering on surreal: Lance Armstrong, bleeding and bandaged, his jersey ripped by his second serious crash of the 2010 Tour de France, looking resigned, looking—could it be?—irrelevant.
On the Tour's first day in the high mountains, Sunday's stage 8, Armstrong was exposed as a hollow imitation of the man who won this race seven times. With his main rivals ratcheting up the pace on an Alp called the Col de la Ramaz, the 38-year-old leader of Team RadioShack was spit out the back of the bunch, never to catch up. By the end of the day, the Texan had hemorrhaged nearly 12 minutes to stage winner Andy Schleck, the stick-figure climbing specialist for team Saxo Bank who is 14 years his junior.
Armstrong's plunge in the standings, from 14th to afterthought (39th, if you must know), marked the end of both an era and an exceptionally tense first week of this Tour, which ends on July 25 in Paris. To the usual early stage insults of pelting rains and nasty crosswinds, race officials this year added the injury of cobblestones. Stage 3 featured seven sections of the jarring pavé, as it is known, a regular feature of cycling's early-season races but seldom seen in the Tour.
In an augury of ill luck to come Armstrong punctured his front tire on the sixth section of cobbles, losing over a minute to Schleck and 51 seconds to defending champion Alberto Contador, Armstrong's archrival and former Astana teammate. "Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail," said Armstrong. "Today I was the nail."
After losing a minute on the Col de la Ramaz on Sunday, Armstrong got hammered on the day's final climb, to the town of Avoriaz, losing another 10 minutes as he soft-pedaled his way to the finish, his chances for an eighth Tour all but extinguished.
Well up the mountain, Schleck shocked Contador, dropping the Spaniard with a savage acceleration, then sprinting to the stage victory. True, Contador finished just 10 seconds in arrears, but it was surprising to see anyone ride away from him in the mountains. The Astana captain is widely considered the best climber in the world.
While BMC's Cadel Evans now wears the yellow jersey, this Tour will likely come down to a duel between Schleck and Contador. We haven't heard the last from Armstrong. He is so far behind that race leaders will probably have few qualms about letting him go up the road for stage wins. Such is life as a nail.
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A Fast Change
Why was this man crying? Following his victory in a sprint finish in stage 5, HTC-Columbia's Mark Cavendish(below) shed tears of joy. Joy and relief. Until that win the native of the Isle of Man was having a rough summer. After winning 10 stages in his first two Tours de France, Cavendish had won only two stages this season. His form was subpar, and his trademark brashness had begun to wear thin in the peloton. Skunked in the first four stages of this Tour, Cav himself heard the whispers: At age 25, was he already past his prime? The answer arrived last week. The day after winning stage 5, he rocketed out of the slipstream of his wingman, Mark Renshaw, for a second straight win. This time he shed no tears. Cavendish will leave that to his rival sprinters.
Photograph by BRYN LENNON/GETTY IMAGES
BACK IN THE PACK As stage 3 began, Armstrong (opposite) was in contention, but a flat tire presaged even more trouble ahead.
PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (ARMSTRONG)
VINCENT CURUTCHET/DPPI/ICON SMI (CAVENDISH)