Text by Christian Camerota
It appears Lance Amstrong's role has decidedly changed: from contender to protector.
In years past the steep climb from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand, considered by many to be the 2009 Tour de France's most difficult stage, has left Armstrong looking over his shoulder at the competition and the valleys below. But the 37 year-old Texan finished fifth in Wednesday's 17th stage, losing more than two minutes to tour leader and teammate Alberto Contador and falling to fourth place overall.
Contador extended his lead to 2'26", fending off multiple attacks by and finishing between Saxo Bank teammates and brothers Andy and Frank Schleck. The three man group ended the day more than two minutes ahead of the nearest riders and rearranged the leaderboard as well, with the Schleck brothers now second and third respectively.
The most notable move of the stage, however, may have been Armstrong's lack thereof. As opposed to accelerating to catch the lead pack and perhaps giving challenger Bradley Wiggins the opportunity to draft and pass Contador, Armstrong hung back and maintained his distance until he was sure his teammate and the race's current leader were out of reach.
"I was there stuck with Wiggins," Armstrong said afterward. "I had to wait until it got steeper, when you knew you could definitely get away."
That point came with just under 9 miles left in the 105-mile ride, when Armstrong seized an opportunity to surge forward. Still, it was too little too late and he ended the day 3'55" behind Contador. His goal now, he admitted, is to be next to Contador on the podium when they reach Paris.
"I think it's possible," he said of finishing second. "I just need to work hard on the time-trial tomorrow. I've been very careful today."
Tomorrow's 40.5 km trial in Annecy represents a good chance for Armstrong to regain the ground he lost before Saturday's grueling climb into Mont Ventoux, as he typically excels in the individual portions. In the meantime it appears that, barring a spectacular collapse or an unforeseen disaster, Alberto Contador will likely be this year's tour champion.
To follow the action live, the Tour has set up a great live feed here.