MORZINE, France -- It was a rare sight: Lance Armstrong struggling through the mountains, unable to summon an extra burst of energy to stay with his rivals on a climb.
The Texan just couldn't keep up late in Tuesday's 16th stage of the Tour de France and wound up staggering across the finish line in eighth place. He was 2 minutes, 1 second behind stage winner Richard Virenque and 1:37 behind Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's only serious challenger for the title.
Armstrong, though, had plenty of time to spare, and rode well enough to maintain an overall lead that should hold up with five stages left in the cycling marathon.
''Today was the hardest day of my life on a bike,'' a winded Armstrong said.
His lead over Ullrich, the 1997 champion, was cut from 7:26 to 5:37, but with all five of the decisive mountain stages over, he should have few problems retaining the yellow jersey to the end.
''I had a problem on the last climb. I had no energy left,'' said Armstrong, who came back from cancer to win the Tour last year. ''I am lucky that this race goes on for three weeks and that I had a lead of 7 1/2 minutes.''
He said he didn't eat properly before the race and was lacking sugar.
The day's route of 122 miles passed near the spectacular cable cars that run to the 10,560-foot summit of Carron from Val-Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe.
Between the narrow winding mountain passes, which made for energy-sapping climbs and potentially dangerous descents, riders passed through scenic villages and the town of Albertville, host city of the 1992 Winter Olympics.
There was no more verbal jousting between Armstrong and Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour winner, though their public spat -- centering on Armstrong's decision to ease off and let Pantani win a stage last week -- may have given both riders extra motivation.
Pantani built up an early lead, before dropping back at the start of the day's final ascent up the Col de Joux-Plane. As the Italian faltered, Armstrong, who said he would be thinking during the race about their dispute, sprinted past.
Ullrich, Virenque and Roberto Heras went wheel-to-wheel with Armstrong, and it was Heras who had the strongest legs, opening up a 39-second gap over Armstrong with 12 miles to go.
Suddenly, the strength seemed to drain out of Armstrong.
At the peak, he was 1:30 behind Ullrich and more than 2:00 behind Virenque and Heras.
That opened the way for a thrilling battle for the line between Virenque, France's most popular rider, and Heras.
Heras lost control of his bike about a mile from the end and crashed into barriers taking a corner in the narrow streets of Morzine. He got on a new bike, and settled for third place.
Virenque, the top mountain climber in four of the past five Tours, finished the route from Courchevel to Morzine in 5:32:20. It was his first Tour stage victory since 1997.
''It was a great moment for me personally and it brings me a lot of happiness. It is a shame that Heras fell because he deserved to have a chance at the end,'' Virenque said.
''The course today suited me and I never felt that I was lacking anything.''
Virenque joined the Polti team after being fired by Festina after the 1998 Tour drug scandal. Festina was tossed out of the race, and Virenque was one of two team members who denied knowingly taking banned substances. He faces a trial in October.
The three-week race, which ends Sunday in Paris, continues Wednesday with a hilly, 93-mile course from Evian-les-Bains to Lausanne, Switzerland.
Organizers said Tuesday they are cutting the number of cars allowed on the route from 1,000 to 500, because a 12-year-old boy died last week after being hit by a publicity car.
Riders stopped at the start of the 16th stage for a moment of silence in memory of the victim.
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