Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong said he is now fighting for second place on the 2009 Tour after he slipped further off the virtual podium following Wednesday's 17th stage.
Saxo Bank leader Andy Schleck, third on the stage, is second at 2:26 while Frank is 3:25 adrift in third.
Armstrong, who started the day second overall at 1:37 behind Contador, fought hard on the 15km descent from the summit of the Col de la Colombiere to close an earlier gap and finished fifth.
The result leaves him fourth overall at 3:55 behind his Astana teammate, but it is second-placed Andy Schleck the American now has in his sights.
"Second is still my goal, I guess it's still possible," said Armstrong, who vowed to battle hard during Thursday's time trial. "If I don't win it's not the end of the world, but of course I would like to be on the podium in Paris."
Armstrong was left behind when the Schleck brothers -- Andy and Frank -- launched a series of attacks to try to shake off Contador on the steep Col de Romme whose summit was 29km from the finish.
Thanks to their accelerations, a group which included the top five in the general classification was split, with Armstrong left behind to mark Garmin's Bradley Wiggins.
"With hindsight, I probably should have gone with the earlier acceleration," said Armstrong. "I didn't match the acceleration of the other guys, I was stuck back alongside Wiggins, I had to wait until the very end when it got a bit steeper. It's a different position than I normally find myself in, but it's not strange."
Armstrong says he will need to work hard on Thursday's time-trial around Annecy to make up the time difference.
"I just need to work hard at the time trial tommorrow to make up for the time I lost today," he said. "I don't want to chase it, but I have no choice. For the Schlecks, time trials aren't their forte, they are good climbers; the course at Annecy has got a hill in it, so that could help them."
And Armstrong says both Annecy and Saturday's assault of the fearsome 21.1km climb up to Mount Ventoux will ultimately decide who is left standing on the podium in Paris come Sunday.
"I think we still have two big days: the time trial will shake things out, there will also be a big shake out at Mount Ventoux," he said.
Armstrong has already said he will ride in next year's race and is set to announce a new sponsor on Thursday.
His close friend and mentor Johan Bruyneel also announced on Tuesday he is set to quit the Astana team as their team manager, and rumours are rife that he is due to start up a new team with Armstrong the likely leader. The new sponsors and the timing of the move haven't been announced.
Evans' woes continue
Australian Cadel Evans' woes continued at the Tour de France on Wednesday when he suffered throughout the toughest day in the Alps on the race's 17th stage.
Evans, the runner-up the past two years for his Silence team, finished the 169.5km stage from Bourg Saint Maurice to here in 81st place at 29:43 behind stage winner Frank Schleck of Luxembourg.
As Evans crumbled, the man who beat him by 23 seconds to win the 2007 edition, Alberto Contador, tightened his grip on the yellow jersey after finishing second on the stage.
Evans began struggling almost as soon as the road went upwards, on the Cormet de Roselend, and the Australian battled through the stage's four remaining climbs to finish with the 'grupetto' -- the sprinters and non-climbers -- to work together to limit their losses to the leaders.
Evans is now 32nd overall at 37:06.
His Belgian teammate Jurgen Van den Broeck, initially brought on the Tour to help Evans on the climbs, is Silence's best placed rider at 17th overall, 17:23 behind Contador.
Bruyneel: Alberto and Lance 'not compatible'
Astana's Belgian manager Johan Bruyneel says there is a "certain incompatibility" between Spanish rider Alberto Contador and American Lance Armstrong, even as he minimised the friction between the two team leaders on the Tour de France.
"There was never a 'click' between the two, I don't know why," he said in an interview published in top-selling daily newspaper El Pais, adding however that "there was never as much friction" between the two as was reported.
Relations between Contador and Armstrong, which were tense since the start of the Tour de France, appear to have improved since the Spanish rider took the yellow jersey on Sunday during the first Alpine stage of the race to become the favourite to win the event.
It was the first time that he pulled on the yellow jersey since his Tour win in 2007.
Bruyneel said he "always thought that only Alberto could win" the Tour even if he was "surprised" by Armstrong's level at some moments.
"The logic says that Contador was the strongest, before and during the race," said Bruyneel who is a personal friend of Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the cycling race.
Bruyneel also confirmed that he would soon leave Astana to form a new team with Armstrong, because it was "unthinkable" for him to continue to lead the Kazakhstan team in the event that Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov returns to it after a suspension for doping as is expected.
Asked about Contador's possible participation in this new project, he said it was unlikely because of the "incompatibility" between the two.
He also denied, in response to a question from El Pais, that Nike would be the sponsor of his new project, to be announced Thursday.
© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar
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