Lance Armstrong's bid for a fairytale finale ended in an anticlimax today as Pierrick Fedrigo won the 16th stage of the Tour de France.
Once so dominant he won seven successive Tours between 1999 and 2005, Armstrong attempted to bow out with a final flourish on the 199.5-kilometre 16th stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau.
However, having been in the lead group for much of the day, the Team RadioShack leader, who was more than 40 minutes behind yellow jersey Alberto Contador at the start of the day, finished sixth as Fedrigo (Bbox Bougyues Telecom) won in a sprint finish from Sandy Casar (FDJ) and Ruben Plaza Molina (Caisse D'Epargne).
It was the sixth French stage win of the 97th Tour.
Carlos Barredo (QuickStep) - fined for fighting earlier in the Tour - attacked after 45km and ploughed ahead, but was caught with less than 2km to go as the day's racing ended in a sprint.
The day began with Contador (Astana) in possession of the maillot jaune with an eight-second lead over Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) after the Spaniard controversially took advantage of his rival's mechanical problem yesterday.
With a long descent to the finish in Pau, the duo chose not to attack today.
But while the race for the maillot jaune appears to be a duel between Contador and Schleck, Armstrong, who finished third in his comeback Tour in 2009 behind the same duo, had the personal ambition of taking a 26th stage win.
The 38-year-old American, who is riding in his 13th and final Tour and has worn the yellow jersey for 83 days, could not shake off his rivals and was beaten to the line in the sprint.
With four days of racing remaining, he is unlikely to get another opportunity to stand atop the podium.
Tomorrow is the final rest day at the Tour, with Thursday's 174km 17th stage from Pau to Col du Tourmalet set to be the last opportunity for Schleck to gain time on Contador ahead of Saturday's 52km time-trial - the Spaniard is the more adept rider against the clock.
Armstrong entered the Tour dreaming of an eighth title but was cast adrift on the first Alpine stage.
Out of contention for the overall title, Armstrong, who turns 39 in September, was able to get in the day's early breakaway, along with Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), who finished fourth in 2009 but was 23rd at the start of the day.
The duo were joined by 12 others, but as Wiggins faded, Armstrong was still in contention over the hors categorie (beyond category) Col du Tourmalet.
The American was alongside nine riders at the summit of the fabled 17.1km Pyrenean climb and had Team RadioShack colleague Chris Horner for company.
The group had a lead of more than three minutes over Contador's group at the summit.
The advantage for a slimmed-down group of eight became nine minutes 42 seconds by the top of the 29.2km Col d'Aubisque - which featured an ascent of the Col du Soulor - with 61.5km of the stage remaining, most of it downhill.
Casar, who won the ninth stage to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, joined the leading eight on the descent.
Barredo, who worked hard up the Col d'Aubisque, attacked with 45km to go.
Barredo was involved in a fist fight with Rui Costa (Caisse D'Epargne) following stage six into Gueugnon, for which the duo were fined 400 Swiss Francs, but today he let his pedalling do the talking.
With 30km remaining he led by 48 seconds, with the peloton more than nine minutes adrift. However, it was not enough.
The eight in pursuit cut the deficit as they entered the suburbs of Pau and caught a slowing Barredo before bursting for the line.
Fedrigo ended Armstrong's dream, though.
Armstrong last won a Tour stage in Saint-Etienne on July 23, 2005 en route to his seventh title.
Five years on, having spent three years in retirement before coming back for two more Tours, it remains his last stage victory.
Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team) climbed well all day and won the final sprint to the line from the peloton to finish 10th.
In winning six points, Hushovd reclaimed the points classification leader's green jersey from Alessandro Petacchi.
Hushovd now has 191 points, Petacchi lies second with 187 and Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) has 162 to lie 29 points behind.
The next sprint stage is expected to be Friday's 198km 18th stage from Sailes-de-Bearn to Bordeaux.