'Finish' will have to be enough for Lance


PAU, France -- It wasn't meant to be for Lance Armstrong in the 2010 Tour de France, for a myriad of reasons. But Tuesday, when his race narrowed from the panorama of three weeks to one finish line, the explanation for why he didn't win was simple.

"I wasn't fast enough in the end," Armstrong said, the chin strap from his helmet dangling under a face covered with road grime.

The seven-time champion's competitive options in what could be the final race of his career started to dwindle almost as soon as the Tour began on July 3. He came in as an admitted dark horse for the podium after a sketchy early season, although top-three finishes in stage races in Luxembourg and Switzerland convinced some that Armstrong could not be discounted based on his savvy and the depth of the RadioShack team.

But Armstrong had barely entered the ring when circumstance began raining punches on him. Once a Teflon rider who glided through and around disaster, Armstrong suddenly turned into a mishap magnet. Stage 8 in the Alps put him on the ropes, as Armstrong wiped out at high speed in a roundabout at the base of the Col de la Ramaz and nearly went down again later when he became entangled in a crash in front of him. Armstrong finished that day with an unaccustomed look of resignation, his jersey and bib number shredded along with his overall hopes.

Armstrong didn't pretend he had any miracles left at that point. He settled into the peloton and rode near-anonymously, although the number of times the cameras gravitated to him indicated he was something more than pack fill.

The Texan kept hinting that he would launch one last salvo, and Tuesday, he confirmed that he had "dog-eared" Stage 16 in the race bible. With four significant climbs in the Pyrenees, it's what cyclists refer to as a queen stage. Yet because the last summit came so far from the finish, dampening the chances of overall contenders opening gaps on each other, it shaped up as an opportunist's battleground. That became even clearer as the Tour evolved into a duel between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who are saving their ammunition for Thursday's uphill finish when they will try to out-distance each other.

Armstrong jumped early and attacked when he could, yet as soon as the eventual breakaway group sorted itself out, his chances dimmed. Among the nine riders were two or three younger men whose sprinting skills at the end of a long day are indisputably better than his. (Armstrong did note after Tuesday's stage, however, that French veteran Christophe Moreau -- who scrambled to gain the honor of going over the Col du Tourmalet summit first -- is five months his senior.)

Armstrong's best asset, aside from his own desire, was teammate Chris Horner, a strong finisher in this kind of scenario. But the action took a somewhat unexpected turn when Carlos Barredo, the same Spanish rider who was involved in a finish-line fisticuffs incident during the Tour's first week, went solo with 28 miles to go. The breakaway group didn't catch him again until there was less than a mile left.

If they'd reeled him in earlier, RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel said, "It could have been more tactical in the last three or four kilometers ... but it still would have been a gamble." He knew Armstrong was tired, having heard it firsthand when the road flattened out after the last descent. Horner did his best to position Armstrong in the finale, but two-time Tour stage-winner Pierrick Fedrigo of France surged ahead with an explosive late kick and Armstrong crossed in sixth place.

Belgian rider Jurgen Van De Walle of the Quick Step team, one of the stalwarts in the break, said he admired Armstrong for giving it a whirl despite the odds against him.

"[Armstrong] is not slow, but he doesn't have the speed of a Fedrigo or [Sandy] Casar," said Van De Walle, who exhausted himself on behalf of his teammate Barredo. "If he goes away with a small, small group on the climb, then maybe he has a chance. But from the moment we were nine guys, I thought it would be really difficult for him.

"He has a strong head and I think he didn't want to leave the Tour without proving something."

Armstrong said afterward that he raced as intelligently as he could, asserting himself when he had the strength and riding at his own pace rather than trying to follow every attack. "I'm not the best guy in the race, but I still have the spirit of a fighter, I suppose," he said.

Will he get another chance to don the gloves? Armstrong has Wednesday to recuperate from his effort. Theoretically, Contador, Schleck and the other contenders might let an unthreatening breakaway go up the road in Thursday's stage that ends atop the Tourmalet, but Armstrong's prospects would have to be classified as slim. Friday and Sunday are pure sprinters' stages and Armstrong won't be among the favorites on Saturday's flat time-trial course.

Armstrong clearly doesn't want his final Tour snapshot to be viewed as an abandonment, so he will roll into Paris without a reserved podium spot for the first time in 15 years. Very few great athletes get the last lap they crave, and in this way, Armstrong's extraordinary narrative will end predictably, without an exclamation point. For once, perhaps for the first time, finishing will have to be enough.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.