Armstrong comes full circle as new trials begin

American exits Tour with 23rd place

Lance Armstrong's underwhelming performance in his 13th and final Tour de France, which finished on Sunday, have confirmed widespread expectations that there is likely to be no third comeback.

Yet while the romanticists would suggest the American has come full circle 17 years after making a humbling debut as a 22-year-old, no one ever expected the seven-time champion to finish on such a low.

Amid damaging doping accusations from former team-mate Floyd Landis that have prompted a federal investigation, Armstrong finished in 23rd place at nearly 40 minutes adrift of Spain's Alberto Contador.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was among the most surprised when Armstrong showed the first signs of collapse on the first day in the high mountains on stage eight, when he crashed several times.

"I never once imagined Armstrong would finish almost a quarter-hour (11min 45sec) adrift in the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz," said Prudhomme.

"It's great to see him so determined to finish a race he loves so much, but just as astonishing to see a rider who won it seven times finish nearly 40 minutes down."

In French they refer to the 'Tour de Trop', literally the 'Tour too much', and that term was used regularly in the 97th edition as Armstrong, who successfully battled cancer in 1998 to return to the sport, showed his limitations against younger and hungrier riders.

Hoping to build on his third-place finish last year after a near four-year absence, Armstrong's 2010 campaign looked doomed as early as stage three when he punctured on the cobblestones and lost time to key rivals.

It was the first hint that Armstrong, who has staunchly denied all of Landis's allegations, might not have his eye completely on the ball.

During his seven-year reign with US Postal (1999-2004) and Discovery Channel (2005), Armstrong was celebrated as much for his ability to avoid bike racing's numerous mishaps as he was for his command of the race peloton.

On stage eight that myth began to unravel.

The first day in the high mountains finished with 25-year-old Andy Schleck's victory 10sec ahead of Contador at Morzine-Avoriaz, setting the pattern for their later duel and 27-year-old Contador's eventual third triumph.

Armstrong, who injured his hip in one of his several crashes, trailed in almost 12 minutes later to drop to 13:26 off the leader's pace.

"It's sad to see, but that's sport," said Armstrong's team manager Johan Bruyneel, the Belgian who helped spearhead all seven of his Tour triumphs.

"It's certainly the end of his aspirations to win the Tour de France."

Armstrong, now almost anonymous, resigned himself to helping team-mate Levi Leipheimer score a top-ten finish, while hoping for a final stage win in the "tough and steep" Pyrenees.

The 38-year-old American got his chance for a 26th and final stage success on the race when he jumped into a breakaway on stage 16.

But at the end of the 199.5km ride over four mountain passes, Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo dominated an eight-man bunch finish to leave Armstrong in sixth place.

"I'm not the best guy in the race but I have the spirit of a fighter," said Armstrong.

Known as 'The Boss' during his seven-year grip on the Tour peloton, a more relaxed Armstrong was welcomed back for his final two appearances in 2009 and 2010.

Off the bike Armstrong even managed to keep his composure this year in spite of Landis's claims, which he repeated live on American television on Friday.

What the future holds for Armstrong, who remains one of the icons of modern day cycling, is anyone's guess.

But it appears his love affair with the Tour, which he returned to in 2009 in the belief he could win again after seeing Spaniard Carlos Sastre win the 2008 edition, is now over.

Britain's David Millar believes Armstrong has finally got the message.

"I don't think he's going to make another comeback," Millar told AFP. "He's seeing it now for what it is instead of watching it on television and thinking, 'I can win that'."

© AFP 2010

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