PAU, France — In the closing moments of Tuesday’s stage of the Tour de France, just as in the old days when he dominated this race, Lance Armstrong tried to win.
Pierrick Fedrigo celebrated his stage 16 victory of the Tour de France.
He rose from his seat and began to sprint to the finish line, churning the smooth, muscled legs that helped him win seven Tour titles. But this time, unlike so many times in the past, there was no happy ending for Armstrong, the most successful rider in Tour history.
In what Armstrong says will be his final Tour, he was just not good enough.
Armstrong finished sixth on Tuesday in Stage 16, the Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo outsprinting him to the finish line. Afterward, Armstrong spoke briefly before remounting his bike and riding to his hotel, initially with a police escort — and a grimace.
“It was hard; it’s been a while since I sprinted,” Armstrong said, his face still sweaty and covered with a film of dust. “Just not quick enough.”
Armstrong — who at 38 is one of the oldest Tour riders — had hoped to win a stage as consolation for not winning the whole race.
With four stages left, though, his chances are running out. His best opportunity for a victory was very likely on Tuesday, when he made it into an early breakaway along the 124-mile route, which included four grueling climbs. In the final stages, he will probably not be able to keep up with better climbers, sprinters and time-trial specialists.
Armstrong’s hopes for an overall victory vanished about eight days into this three-week event because of bad luck and crashes.
Several times, he was caught behind riders who had crashed. Twice he fell, including once in Stage 8, when he hit the pavement going about 40 miles per hour. That day, he finished nearly 12 minutes behind the stage winner, an example of how tumultuous this Tour has been for him, on and off the bike.
Earlier this week, Armstrong — who has 25 Tour stage victories — said he did not want other riders to let him win one final time just because they felt sorry for him.
“Back in our heyday, we didn’t give anything away,” he said. “So I don’t want anybody to say, Hey, let’s let the old man have one.”
And no one did. No matter how much power Armstrong once wielded in the peloton, there was no mercy Tuesday.
Fedrigo, the sixth French rider to win a Tour stage this year, saw his fans and family along the route and was motivated to win for them.
“I wasn’t afraid of Armstrong in the sprint,” he said.
The Belgian rider Jurgen Van de Walle, who finished seventh, sensed how much Armstrong had wanted the victory. But at the Tour, every rider wants to win, he said.
“He was a great champion and he has a strong head, and I think he didn’t want to leave the Tour without success,” Van de Walle said. “Even with the bad luck he has had, he still stayed in the Tour to prove something. But there are no gifts in the Tour.”
The overall race leaders were unchanged after the stage. The defending champion, Alberto Contador, is still eight seconds ahead of Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, who was the Tour runner-up last year. Spain’s Samuel Sánchez is third, two minutes back.
Though Armstrong finished third last year, he lags in 25th place, 33 minutes 46 seconds back. But that is by design, he and his RadioShack team manager, Johan Bruyneel, said.
Once Armstrong’s podium hopes disappeared, he and Bruyneel decided that Armstrong needed to save his energy for a possible stage win. So after plummeting in the standings in the first eight days, Armstrong proceeded to take it relatively easy. He finished way back nearly every day — in 70th, 114th and even 130th.
On some days, Armstrong acted as the Tour’s cruise director, laughing and chatting with fans, and thanking them for coming as he pedaled to the finish line.
“Once you know you’re not going to be the best guy, then I’m going to, like I said in the beginning, sit up and enjoy it,” Armstrong when asked about his deflated effort. “Look around, look at people, listen to people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not going to win the Tour.”
Armstrong took some flak for it. In an article in the French sports newspaper L’Equipe last Sunday, a reporter wrote that Armstrong had started the Tour as a professional cyclist, then became a tourist on a bike, then was simply a tourist.