The 38-year-old, who is racing in his 13th and final Tour, rolled back the years and was again the main protagonist on a major mountain stage at cycling’s most prestigious race.
However, Armstrong (Team RadioShack) fell short in his bid for a 26th Tour stage victory as Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bougyues Telecom) won a sprint finish between eight breakaway riders to claim victory on the 199.5-kilometre 16th stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau.
Armstrong said: “I focused on the stage, tried to get up in the moves and it didn’t work — I wasn’t fast enough in the end.
“Fedrigo’s very fast and he deserved to win.”
Alberto Contador (Astana), wearing the race leader’s maillot jaune, and Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank), who is eight seconds behind in the race for glory in Paris, finished on the same time, six minutes 45 seconds behind Fedrigo and Armstrong.
With four days’ racing remaining — including tomorrow’s pivotal summit-top finish at the Col du Tourmalet — the race remains a duel.
Contador and Schleck, who appear to have salvaged their friendship following yesterday’s 15th stage when the Spaniard took advantage of his rival’s mechanical problem, opted to take a cautious approach on a day which featured two category one and two harder still hors categorie (beyond category) climbs and a downhill finish into Pau.
Armstrong, who finished third in his comeback Tour in 2009 behind the same duo, though, had the personal ambition of bowing out of his final Tour with a stage win.
Having begun the 97th Tour hunting an eighth title, Armstrong’s dream was dashed on the first Alpine stage as he drifted almost 12 minutes behind.
He was in a 14-man group alongside Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), the fourth-placed finisher in 2009, atop the day’s first climb — the category one Col de Peyresourde.
And while others, including Wiggins, fell back to the bunch, Armstrong was still in contention over the 12.3km Col d’Aspin and the 17.1km ascent of Col du Tourmalet — the 2010 Tour’s first climb of the fabled mountain.
Carlos Barredo (QuickStep) attacked with 45km remaining, after reaching the top of the day’s fourth and final climb — the 29.2km Col d’Aubisque — first.
But Armstrong and seven others set off in pursuit, catching Barredo with 2km to go before a sprint for the line.
Armstrong, who is 39 in September, went with his younger rivals but was seen to sit up as Fedrigo triumphed for the sixth French stage victory of the 2010 Tour.
Armstrong, who climbed from 31st to 25th place overall today, planned to be in the breakaway, but the sought-after victory did not arrive.
“It was full gas all day,” he said. “It was somewhat of a planned attack.
“I knew that starting on the Peyresourde was going to be very difficult, I knew a group was going to go away.
“I’ve trained hard, I’m not the best guy in the race but I still have the spirit of a fighter.”
On his impending departure as a Tour rider, Armstrong added: “Lance Armstrong is over in about four or five days.”
Contador, who yesterday refused to dismiss Schleck’s time-trialling ability, apologised on Monday night and the duo embraced at the finish yesterday.
Contador said: “We are big friends and that won’t change because of what happened.”
Schleck said: “It’s finished and on Thursday I think you’ll see a good war between him and I.
“Eight seconds is nothing in the third week of the Tour. I think whoever gets to the top of the Tourmalet first on Thursday will win the Tour.”
Ireland’s Nicholas Roche finished in the peloton having begun the day very aggressively on the lower slopes of the category one Col du Peyresourde.
Roche slipped into an 11-man group which turned out to be the move of the day containing Armstrong whose blistering pace took its toll on Roche, causing him to fall back into the bunch where he stayed for the day.
He did contest the sprint at the finish and was 13th overall on the stage, six minutes and 45 seconds behind winner Pierrick Fedrigo (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom, thus slipping one place to 18th in the overall standings.
* Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi will cooperate fully with a doping investigation after the race finishes this weekend, his lawyer said yesterday. The 36-year-old Lampre rider had been given a legal warning saying he was being investigated over possible doping offences. In a statement, the Lampre team said Petacchi confirmed through his lawyer Virginio Angelini he would cooperate with the investigation.