The Tour de France could not have had a better-timed rest day as it attempted yesterday to digest Lance Armstrong's sudden removal from the front-running of the race. After spending the best part of a decade leading the way, Armstrong's dramatic defeat, when he was caught in three crashes on the first Alpine stage, may mark the end of an era, and will certainly end an aura.
"My Tour's finished," was his pronouncement upon crossing the line on Sunday. He followed it up with a tweet (Armstrong is a prolific Twitter devotee) that in a few characters speaks volumes about how much the mindset of a once dominant, invincible spirit has changed: "When it rains it pours I guess... Today was not my day needless to say. Quite banged but gonna hang in here and enjoy my last two weeks." The great Armstrong a mere passenger, a tourist watching and even enjoying rather than competing with his every sinew? Incredible but, it would seem, true.
The Texan had already said he would not be riding the Tour again, and that is doubly certain now. Other races, mainly in the US, are on the cards, but for now that seems beside the point: the impact of a Tour without Armstrong at the front is huge, and felt nowhere more than in the team built specifically to deliver him an eighth victory, RadioShack.
The temptation to look back at their long years of shared glory was impossible to resist. "It's difficult to accept, this has never happened before," said his longstanding team manager Johan Bruyneel. "We had come in with the hope of succeeding, and now it's all been crushed."
Bruyneel's initial optimism was based on Armstrong's strong build-up to the Tour, finishing second in the arduous Tour de Suisse in June.
However, on Sunday's dramatic stage Armstrong suffered more bad luck and more crashes than during the seven years from 1999 that he dominated the Tour. After losing 12 minutes to the other favourites, there is no way for the American to turn back the clock.
"Armstrong was unique because he was the only multiple Tour winner to have retired [in 2005] without ever having a defeat, and that's no longer the case," L'Equipe's veteran cycling reporter, Philippe Bouvet, told The Independent. "But now he's finished as a bike rider, the page has turned." Despite such speculation, there has been no announcement that Armstrong will retire from the race or cycling when the race reaches Paris.
The overwhelming feeling in the peloton is that on the bike, let alone off it, Armstrong has yet to make his final statement.
"He has taken a battering but he is not broken," the 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre said. "Armstrong never gives up and he didn't win seven Tours by being the strongest – he was the smartest as well."
The points competition leader, Thor Hushovd, added: "I feel sorry for him because he looked really fit and ready before he was injured. I would have liked him to have won the Tour again, it would have been good for the sport."
Alberto Contador, the man most likely to succeed Armstrong, has always been unfailingly polite about the American and predicted RadioShack will be much weaker without him.
"They will be a lot less in the thick of the action than they were before," he said. As for the fans, while some were said to have jeered at Armstrong on his doomed climb in Avoriaz on Sunday, dozens more gathered at Armstrong's team hotel in the ski resort of Morzine yesterday.
"He is feeling good. His morale was already improving yesterday [Sunday] evening," RadioShack's team spokesman Phillip Maertens said. "He knows it is all over, but he is going to try to make the most of the situation and enjoy the Tour.
"I am sure he will try something, although not in the Alps because of his wounds from his crashes. Nothing is broken but the impact on his hip is very big."
Maertens was adamant that even after his collapse, the influence of Armstrong is so strong that his enemies would still refuse him a symbolic win.
"Even now he is nearly 15 minutes behind, they won't let him go," the spokesman said. "All of his rivals still fear him."
Armstrong's former team-mate, Jonathan Vaughters, told The Independent: "He has always been strong-minded, very unpredictable, so who knows what will happen. What happened to him? What happens to anybody who is nearly 40 when it is baking hot – weather that's always bothered Lance badly – and they've ridden flat out, injured, through the Alps? It is logical. It is age.
"One minute I think he will be wondering why he came back to cycling, the next he is tough as nails. I am sure he will make it to Paris."
Armstrong seemed to be upbeat. On Monday, the Texan went out and trained over the Joux Plane climb, one of the few mountains on which he had trouble during the 2002 Tour de France. Reliving old defeats, it seems, is not now a problem for him.
Is this the bloodymindedness that turned him into one of the youngest world champions and Tour stage winners, and inspired his fight back from cancer? Lance Armstrong is going to leave quite a gap.
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