Lance Armstrong eased up on the steep climb to the Mende aerodrome, finishing 3:35 behind Joaquin Rodriguez and Alberto Contador, but it was still a good day for Team RadioShack, with Andreas Klöden in the break of the day and Levi Leipheimer fighting strongly to defend his sixth place overall.
Klöden's seventh place, eleventh by Leipheimer and seventeenth place from Chris Horner also secured RadioShack the team prize for the stage and moved them up to first place in overall team classification, 21 seconds ahead of Caisse d'Epargne.
Armstrong did not talk to media at the finish. His hotel was right at the foot of the steep final climb and after crossing the line, he quickly turned around and rode back down the course, leaving his bodyguards and his special team car (dubbed Air Force One) beyond the finish line.
Leipheimer finished 11th on the stage, 17 seconds behind Rodriguez and Contador, and fought hard to hang onto Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who is one place behind him in the overall standings. The American climber lost two seconds to the lanky Dutchman at the line but is still 21 seconds ahead overall.
Leipheimer also lost seven seconds to Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma) and is now 35 seconds behind the promising young Flemish rider, who is fifth overall.
"I was just cross-eyed. I saw Alberto go and there was no way I could follow him," Leipheimer said.
"Unless you're the best guy, you always have to pace yourself. Even Andy Schleck was pacing himself today. It just comes down to getting to the top of the hills as fast as you can, whether that's by finding a wheel or making a jump at the end. I actually lost a couple of wheels and blew up a little bit."
Leipheimer and all the overall contenders have used the last two days to recover from the huge efforts they made in the Alps. However, Leipheimer admitted he felt a little blocked up after two days riding within his limits.
"The last two easy days haven't been good for me," he said. "It's weird to say but after two easy days, you don't have that punch anymore, you can't really open up. I kind of felt that today. I hope I can feel better."