Lance's hopes 'finished' amid crashes

MORZINE, France -- Close the book on the Lance Armstrong era at the Tour de France. He has.

The record seven-time champion wrote off his chances of victory in his 13th and last Tour, signaling the beginning of the end of one of the most celebrated and controversial careers in cycling history.

The 38-year-old Texan's hopes for yet another title were dashed Sunday after he got caught in three crashes -- one of which brought him down -- and struggled to keep up during two tough climbs in Stage 8, the race's first foray into the Alps. He and his team said his hip got banged up, keeping him from pedaling hard.

The stage was won by 25-year-old Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, and Armstrong finished nearly 12 minutes back, in 61st place.

World champion Cadel Evans of Australia took the yellow jersey by finishing 10 seconds behind Schleck, but well ahead of overnight leader Sylvain Chavanel of France.

"My Tour is finished," said Armstrong, who fell to 39th overall.

"When it rains it pours I guess," he said in a Twitter message. "Today was not my day, needless to say. Quite banged but gonna hang in here and enjoy my last 2 weeks."

The race finishes July 25 in Paris.

The stage was a poignant, if agonizing, coda to Armstrong's unlikely bid for an eighth Tour victory in the second year of his comeback after a 3½-year hiatus. In his prime, he made his mark in the mountains, pulling away from his competitors there. Today, he panted and struggled on an Alpine climb, his rivals leaving him far behind.

"During his period of domination, in the first mountain stage in high altitudes, he'd hit hard," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. "This is the first time it's not happened like that."

Those years of domination were also marked by years of suspicion about doping -- which he's denied -- including recent allegations by former teammate Floyd Landis.

Despite Armstrong's strong showing in races in Luxembourg and Switzerland this spring for his new RadioShack team, there were questions going into the Tour about his fitness after a crash and because his training was disrupted by a stomach bug.

"You can rationally say it's the end of an epoch, the third version, after the episode of his return from cancer, and his domination," Prudhomme said. "The third act has certainly taken a different turn."

Schleck, whose mountain-scaling skill is reminiscent of the Armstrong of old, reached out to his friend: "I'm a little bit sorry for him, because he really wanted to be really good in this Tour.

"So I think his morale is down."

Armstrong insisted it wasn't.

"No tears from me," he said. "I've had a lot of years here where it's been very different, so I'm not going to dwell on today."

He also insisted he was in good condition.

"It's not the end of a myth today, it's the end of the Tour de France, of Lance's aspirations to win," RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel said. "All that could go wrong, went wrong."

In his heyday, whether by luck or quicker reflexes, Armstrong almost never crashed. This Tour, he's already gone down twice -- and been held up several other times by the falls of others.

"He took a big blow to his left hip and it was impossible to push all the way," said Bruyneel, Armstrong's coach during his seven victories. "He wasn't defeated physically today, but through bad luck."

His collapse Sunday was so complete that the only remaining question was whether he would finish. He could try to find a graceful way to slip home to be with his four, soon to be five, children.

Or, more in character, he might offer one more poke in the eye to his rivals -- by trying to win at least a stage. For him to quietly ride the rest of the race, turning it into a two-week-long farewell would be out of character for someone who loves the limelight and has 2.5 million followers on Twitter.

Schleck showed he's one of the world's best climbers by surging to the head of the pack with less than a mile to go and winning a two-man sprint ahead of Samuel Sanchez of Spain.

Schleck, the Saxo Bank team leader, clocked 4 hours, 54 minutes, 11 seconds, for the 117.4-mile run from Station des Rousses to the Morzine-Avoriaz ski resort that featured two very difficult climbs.

Alberto Contador, the defending Tour champion once billed as a successor to Armstrong, was fifth, 10 seconds back -- along with Evans. Armstrong trailed 11:45 behind.

Overall, Evans leads Schleck by 20 seconds and Contador by 61 seconds. The Australian is a two-time Tour runner-up, and Schleck was runner-up last year. Armstrong is 13:26 back, having begun the day in 14th place behind Chavanel, who finished shortly before him.

Armstrong's deficit is all but impossible to make up given the many strong climbers ahead of him in the standings, and four punishing days in the Pyrenees looming in the third week.

Armstrong's day started badly and only got worse.

He has been known not to fare well riding in the heat, and Sunday's ride was hot -- upward of 95 degrees -- and muggy. But weather was the least of his worries compared to the crashes.

With breakaway riders setting a frenetic pace at the outset, Armstrong narrowly averted a spill among other riders at about four miles, having to veer onto the roadside grass to avoid a pileup. Evans got caught in the spill but quickly recovered, with his shorts ripped and his knees and elbow scraped.

Then about two-thirds of the way through the stage, with the La Ramaz pass looming a few miles away, Armstrong fell as he rode through a roundabout in the fast-moving pack.

"I clipped the pedal and then my tire rolled off," he said. "Then, the next thing I know, I was rolling along the ground, at 60-65 [kilometers] an hour."

He got another bike and returned to the race with the back of his jersey and bib number torn. Armstrong and his teammates pedaled furiously to get him back to the peloton, but it required expending energy that he would need later on the climbs.

"It's hard to recover from something like that," Armstrong said.

He then struggled up the steepest portion of La Ramaz, getting dropped by the group that included Schleck, Contador and Evans. At the top, he was 1:10 behind them.

The coup de grace came with about 12 miles left, before the 8.5-mile ascent up to Morzine-Avoriaz, when Armstrong had to brake hard to avoid a rider who fell in front of him.

He didn't fall, but hopped off his bike as it fell to the ground. He slowly got back on, clearly exasperated by his third crash.

Still, he wasn't ruling out one last run at Tour glory.

"Obviously the Tour's finished for me, but I can try and win stages, try and help the team," Armstrong said, "really try and appreciate my time here, and the fact that I'm not coming back."