A philosophical Lance Armstrong (Radioshack) faced the media at the end of stage three of the Tour de France, which saw his hopes of winning an eighth title take a dent, if not a hammer blow.
The American put it best when, towards the end of a refreshingly honest appraisal of one of the most challenging days of his Tour career, he said: “Sometimes you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. Today I was the nail. I’ve had plenty days when I was the hammer.”
Luck was not on Armstrong’s side as he suffered a front wheel puncture at possibly the worst moment, on the sixth and penultimate section of cobbles, just as the third chasing group - containing defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana) - was about to merge with Armstrong’s group.
It had been section four of the cobbles, and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank)’s heavy crash, that had done the initial damage.
As the older of the Schleck brothers hit the deck the race splintered into pieces. Six riders - including Armstrong’s fellow overall contenders Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Cadel Evans (BMC) - went clear at the front, while other groups formed behind.
Armstrong initially appeared well placed to gain time on Contador, Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and others. But fate - or a sharp cobblestone - intervened.
As Armstrong explained, “Section four was the major selection. Then something happened in front and Frank Schleck came down, and that just kind of opened the group and we hung in there, we were right behind them, and just as we were coming back on to them in section six, I believe, I just got that front flat [tyre].”
With team cars caught behind on the pave, RadioShack did what other teams did, deploying staff members with spare wheels at various points along the cobbled sections. But, unfortunately for Armstrong, his puncture didn’t happen close to any of these designated points.
As Contador’s group sped past he accepted a replacement wheel from his teammate, Gregory Rast, and was quickly back on his bike. But not quick enough to allow him to regain contact with Contador’s group.
“For a little bit, Yaroslav Popovych came back, gave me a hand and then on the final section I went at it alone,” said Armstrong, who added that he found himself, “stuck in the cars, dirt, and dodging people”.
"But no complaints,” he continued. “Bad luck was with me today.”
Armstrong wasn’t the only loser, of course. And nor was he the only one to be surprised at the performances of Andy Schleck and Contador on a stage in which he had been widely expected to gain time.
“Everbody thought the climbers were going to lose minutes today, but they're the ones at the front,” said Armstrong.
“You can't simulate the effort it requires to get to the front,” he added, referring to his relatively lowly position entering the critical section four, as he admitted that he struggled over the cobbles, despite extensive recce-ing of the stage.
“Andy [Schleck] was in the front, but he had a great team and he didn't have to do anything,” Armstrong continued. “He went in completely rested and we were just fighting for their wheel. When we hit the key sections - I can't lie, I was on the limit. So it was a lot different to training.”
Despite receiving something of a hammering, Armstrong didn’t concede defeat. “We lost significant time, so we just have to keep our heads up and take our chances on the climbs. Our chances took a knock today, but we’re not going home; we’ll stay in the race.”
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Richard Moore is a freelance journalist and author. His first book, In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), won Best Biography at the 2008 British Sports Book Awards. His second book, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes (HarperSport), was long-listed for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
He writes on sport, specialising in cycling, and is a regular contributor to Cyclingnews, the Guardian, skyports.com, the Scotsman and Procycling magazine.
He is also a former racing cyclist who represented Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and Great Britain at the 1998 Tour de Langkawi
His next book, Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France, will be published by Yellow Jersey in May 2011.
Another book, Sky’s the Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer the Tour de France, will also be published by HarperSport in June 2011.