Lance Armstrong made what could well be his last appearance at the business end of affairs in 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 that crossed the four cols used on the race's first ever visit to the Pyrenees 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 breakaway riders – 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 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 to 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 Fédrigo of France taking the third stage win of his career.
It says a lot for how quickly Armstrong's influence on the Tour is diminishing that Fédrigo said that the American was not the rider he had worried about the most in the break. "That was [Frenchman Sandy] Casar," he claimed, "he was the fastest there, not Armstrong."
As for a question from a star-struck reporter about how it felt to be in a break with Armstrong in his last Tour de France, Fédrigo did not even bother to answer – a confirmation of Oscar Wilde's quip that if there's one thing worse than being talked about, it's not being talked about.
Although four stages remain, with the overall lead still in play it is unlikely that Armstrong will be allowed to go back 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 with a faulty bike chain rumbled on. Clearly aware of the damage he had done by breaking one of cycling's unwritten rules – that you do not 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 an 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 still booed for a second day running when he received the yellow jersey, but the huge hug he and Schleck shared live on French television, coupled with Schleck telling fans to "stop that, everybody", probably did a lot to lay the controversy to rest. "We've talked it all through and sorted it out," Schleck said later.
While the overall race is still 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 to finish 10th. 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.