Cycling: All going wrong for Armstrong

By Alasdair Fotheringham

Whatever else happens in this year's Tour, today's stage and the entire race will be marked by one single, huge factor - the end of the Lance Armstrong era in the most spectacular style possible.

Even Bradley Wiggins' rough ride, losing nearly two minutes on the first Alpine stage of the 2010 Tour on winner Andy Schleck and new race leader Cadel Evans, was overshadowed by Armstrong's worst day in the race in over a decade.

"My Tour is finished," said Armstrong, who holds a record seven Tour victories and is riding in what he says will be his last try in cycling's showcase event - at age 38. He plunged to 39th place overall.

Armstrong said he had a "very, very bad day," but will continue the three-week race that ends July 25 in Paris.

"No tears from me," he said. "I've had a lot of years here where it's been very different, so I'm not going to dwell on today."

Londoner Bradley Wiggins remains in contention - unlike Armstrong - although he was understandably disappointed with a below-expectations performance. "I felt good until the last climb, but I just couldn't hold on a the end there," Wiggins said. "I'm happy to admit I wasn't quite good enough, but there's still a lot of the race left so we'll see what happens."

But, while Wiggins was able to remain upbeat, for Armstrong there are no such causes for optimism. First for seven years running, third in Paris even after his comeback at age 37 - which he may well now be regretting - Armstrong's dramatic sporting collapse began overnight with complaints of a saddle sore.

But, if he started the stage on the back foot, there was another bad omen for the Texan when he fell in a pile-up of around a dozen riders after just eight kilometres, suffering minor injuries.

The RadioShack leader's luck then took a definitive downturn when he crashed a second time at high speed, midway through the stage. Skidding into another rider at 50km/h, he went flying, injuring his back and his saddle being ripped out of his bike.

He was able to continue, his race number in shreds and blood seeping through a big rip on his jersey. But the crash could hardly have come at a worse moment, with the first major climb of the day starting. After five kilometres, the American was in big trouble.

Weaving from one side of the road to another, with three dozen riders still in the main pack, Armstrong was already out the back well before the real battle for supremacy had begun.

Although three RadioShack riders remained with him, with his face grey and drawn and each pedal stroke looking painful, there was little support they could give the American.

On French television, reports from commentators following the American on motorbikes came thick and fast: "Armstrong dropped by [Thomas] Voeckler, Armstrong dropped by Mathew Lloyd" - riders the previously all-conquering American would barely have noticed in the past had they been shed from the bunch.

Even though the American managed to stay upright when he had a third crash - on the summit of a minor climb preceding the final ascent of a 14km monster, the Col de Morzine-Avoriaz - worse was to come.

On the last climb, overwhelming favourite Alberto Contador instructed his troops to up the pace yet further in a bid to eliminate Armstrong for good, and the knock-out blow proved devastatingly effective.

Barely able to follow his team-mates, suffering in the extreme heat, Armstrong's time loss virtually tripled from four minutes at the foot of Morzine Avoriaz to nearly 12 by the summit, although - image-conscious as ever - he managed to zip up his jersey before crossing the finish line. Such sudden collapses of riders who have dominated stage racing are spectacular, but there is a long tradition of them in the sport.

Eddy Merckx, the greatest pro cyclist of them all, had a similar disaster in 1977 on Alpe D'Huez and Miguel Indurain, a five-time Tour winner, had an equally painfully demise at Les Arcs in 1996. On each occasion, the once-great cyclists never managed to return to their previous lofty heights.

Armstrong was adamant afterwards that he would not be quitting but he is no longer a factor in the battle for yellow.

Even reaching Paris, now, will be a major achievement for the American, forced, for the first time since 1999, to admit that cycling has moved on without him.

Tour de France 8th stage standings:

1. Andy Schleck (LUX/SAX) 4hr 54min 11sec
2. Samuel Sanchez (ESP/EUS)
3. Robert Gesink (NED/RAB)
4. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/LIQ)
5. Alberto Contador (ESP/AST)
6. Cadel Evans (AUS/BMC)
7. Jurgen Van den Broeck (BEL/OLO)
8. Levi Leipheimer (USA/RSH)
9. Ivan Basso (ITA/LIQ)
10. Denis Menchov (RUS/RAB).

Also of note:

61. Lance Armstrong (USA/RSH) 11:45.
156. JULIAN DEAN (NZL/GRM) 31:43.

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