When his younger Astana teammate, Alberto Contador, won Sunday's mountain stage to Verbier and assumed the overall lead, Lance Armstrong knew his hopes of winning the 2009 Tour de France were over.
"I think today he demonstrated he is the strongest man in the race," said Armstrong after the stage. "I thought I would feel a little better, but I didn't. I gave it everything I had and I wasn't the best... that's life."
Contador and Armstrong were third and fourth overall respectively ahead of the Tour's second mountaintop finish. Spain's Contador, Tour winner in 2007, attacked with 5.6 kilometres remaining of the 8.8-kilometre climb and distanced his rivals to finish 43 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck and over a minute on other general classification contenders.
"We were all on the limit and he was able to accelerate again," continued Armstrong. "That means you are the best in the race and you deserve to win."
The experienced American should know what it takes to win a Tour de France, having secured his seventh title in 2005. On Sunday however, he finished with Astana teammate Andreas Klöden, 90 seconds in arrears of Contador and explained that he wasn't at his best.
"There might be people out there that expect me to ride like I did in 2004 or 2005, that's not reality. If I do another year and get another season under my belt maybe we could see that condition come back. Right now, I don't have it. At 38 years old I am not sure that should come as a surprise," he said.
There are six more days of racing before the 96th Tour de France finishes in Paris. The race continues tomorrow after its second rest day with two mountain stages. The other two difficult days are a time trial on Thursday and the mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux on Saturday.
"Now it is clear we have the strongest rider in the race. If we play it smart we can have three guys in the top five, and the guy who wins. I think now is time to put my chances aside and focus on the team," added the American.
Armstrong won the 1999-2005 editions of Tour de France. Although retiring immediately after the 2005 edition, he announced his return to cycling last fall, joining his former director Johan Bruyneel at team Astana. The Tour is his second Grand Tour since 2005, having finished 12th in the Giro d'Italia this May.