In his final days of his final Tour de France, Lance Armstrong showed some of the old fire.
The seven-time champion, knowing full well he no longer stands above all others in his sport, fought from beginning to end in the hopes of going out with a stage victory high in the Pyrenees.
It was not to be. Armstrong finished sixth after breaking away early in the 16th stage and holding his own through four major climbs of the Tour’s most demanding leg. But he lost in a final sprint, with Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo winning the 124-mile ride.
Alberto Contador was almost seven minutes behind, his Astana team asserting control over the field. The defending champion from Spain kept the overall lead, eight seconds ahead of Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. The two rode a day after Contador apologized for the way in which he took the yellow jersey.
On Tuesday, Armstrong, broke away on his own at one point before he was caught by a small group of riders. All of which was a bit of a change for the 38-year-old Texan.
“It was harder than I expected. It’s been awhile since I sprinted,” he said. “Just not quick enough. I’m not the best guy in the race but I still have the spirit of a fighter. ... I wasn’t fast enough in the end. Fedrigo is very fast and he deserves the win.”
The Tour ends in Paris on Sunday, and Armstrong acknowledged his career was nearing the finish.
“Lance Armstrong is over in about four days,” he said.
Armstrong’s coach, Johan Bruyneel, said the course was not ideal for Armstrong to prevail.
“You really have to be very, very strong to ride away,” he said. “And there’s always going to be one or two guys with him, who are equally strong in the sprint,” he said.
Contador lauded Armstrong’s effort.
“I believe he really wanted to go for that stage today,” he said. “For myself, I would have been really happy if he had won that stage because he really deserved it,” he said.
Second place went to France’s Sandy Casar, with Spain’s Ruben Plaza third.
The stage featured two climbs that are so difficult they aren’t even classified by cycling’s governing body. The leading group finished the race in 5 hours, 31 minutes, 43 seconds. The stragglers were almost 35 minutes behind.
It was the third successive French victory in this year’s race and the sixth in all.
“It was my day. Everything smiled on me,” said Fedrigo, who also won a stage in 2009 and 2006 and has regularly been part of breakaways in this year’s race. “This shows that it isn’t only the great leaders who can win on the Tour de France, it’s also the general riders.”
Schleck was unable to get away from Contador and make up the time he desperately needs to regain the yellow jersey and build a buffer for Saturday’s time trial, where Contador is expected to excel.
Schleck had been furious with Contador after Monday’s stage. He felt the Spaniard should have waited while Schleck dealt with a mechanical problem during the day’s main climb. Contador surged ahead but later apologized in a YouTube video. On Tuesday, the two shook hands on French television.
“We are fine now,” Schleck said. “The Tour de France isn’t going to be won by eight seconds, and there’s going to be a big race between him and me the day after tomorrow.”
Wednesday is a rest day. On Thursday, the field turns around and rides the Pyrenees in the other direction, ending on the top of the Col du Tourmalet.
“It’s a very, very hard stage and I think we can have very big gaps — probably more than in the time trial,” Contador said.
Tuesday was a good day for Norway’s Thor Hushovd, who finished in 10th place and picked up enough points to retake the green jersey worn by the top sprinter.
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.