A defiant Lance Armstrong declared the Tour de France "finished" for some of his rivals after his Astana team smashed the race apart by winning the fourth stage team time trial on Tuesday.
Armstrong, racing at the Tour for the first time since his record seventh win in 2005, missed pulling on the race's yellow jersey by just two tenths of a second and is now second overall to Fabian Cancellara.
But for some of Astana's rivals for overall victory, the 37-year-old American said the race is now virtually over.
"I think today, the Tour de France is finished for some riders," said Armstrong, who hinted that he may work for Spanish team-mate Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion, in Friday's first mountain stage.
"The way the team time trial is now, you can look at the results ... it's difficult, and no disrespect, but it's difficult to make up that time."
Lance Armstrong sprints with team-mate Alberto Contador of Spain
With all the key mountain stages still to come, beginning with three days in the Pyrenees, Armstrong's Astana team is now in the driving seat - a position not being shared by some other race hopefuls.
Russian Denis Menchov, Australian Cadel Evans and Spain's defending champion Carlos Sastre were among the big victims after an event in which the team's official finishing time is added to all riders' overall times.
Conversely, four Astana riders are now biting at the heels of race leader Cancellara, with Armstrong sitting in second with a time of 00:00 officially separating him from the big Swiss ace.
Armstrong shows the power that has made him a seven-time champion
Menchov was one of many riders who crashed on the technically demanding course and his Rabobank team went on to finish over two minutes behind Astana, dropping him down to a lowly 72nd overall at 3:52 behind Cancellara.
The Silence team of Evans, the runner-up for the past two years, had a disastrous performance and finished in unlucky 13th place at nearly two and a half minutes behind Astana.
He is now 35th overall at 2:59 behind Cancellara, and Armstrong.
Silence-Lotto's leader Cadel Evans of Australia sprints for the line
Sastre's Cervelo team did slightly better, but still finished over a minute and a half behind Astana, dropping the Spaniard to 29th at 2:44 behind Cancellara.
Cancellara, the Olympic time trial champion who rides for Andy Schleck's Saxo Bank team, helped drive his team to third place to finish 40secs adrift of Astana.
The big Swiss kept the jersey on his shoulders by just two tenths of a second, thanks principally to his winning time in the opening stage time trial.
"You could say it was in typical Swiss timing," said Cancellara, who had a nervous wait to see if he would hold on to the lead.
"We can be proud of how we performed today. We were a little bit nervous waiting for Astana to finish - but keeping the yellow for such a small margin is just something else.
"We deserve to keep the yellow jersey and all the riders can be proud of what they achieved."
Saxo Bank's strong ride meant Schleck, who is their main hope for the yellow jersey, is now in 20th place at 1:41 behind Cancellara.
Evans meanwhile will likely be shocked at seeing the damage done to his hopes of going one better than the past two years.
But even before Astana and three other stage victory favourites had finished their ride, the scrum round the Aussie's bus let him know that significant damage had been done.
The relative weakness of Evans' team - who lost one rider to a crash, another because he couldn't keep up and then had to wait for Johan Vansummeren to rejoin - in such a key event proved a crucial factor.
US cycling team Garmin-Slipstream finished second, only 18 seconds behind Astana
The Garmin team of David Millar and Bradley Wiggins did well to finish in second, only 18secs behind Astana, but they were left lamenting having to do most of the race with only five riders after losing four early on.Had it not been for that misfortune, they would most likely have pipped Astana to the stage win.
Liquigas impressed, coming in less than a minute behind winners Astana
Italian outfit Liquigas impressed in the time trial by finishing fourth at 58sec, one second ahead of Columbia.
© AFP 2009
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