PAU, France (AP) " Lance Armstrong came oh-so-close to the Tour de France stage win he's been yearning for in his final appearance, and one could still come with four racing days left.
The seven-time Tour champion ruled himself out of contention 10 days ago after struggling in the first Alpine challenge, and he's looking forward to retirement when the race ends in Paris on Sunday.
But Armstrong's coach says the American could win a stage.
"It's not yet finished," said Johan Bruyneel, manager of Armstrong's RadioShack team and the man who coached him during all his victories from 1999 to 2005.
"There's a single (mountain) stage left on Thursday ... we're going to try again," said Bruyneel, who also has coached the winner in nine of the last 11 Tours " including Spaniard Alberto Contador in 2007 and 2009.
Heading into the final rest day on Wednesday, Armstrong finished a respectable " even impressive " sixth in Stage 16 on Tuesday by keeping up with and at times leading a breakaway bunch that got out early in the 124-mile trek up four nasty Pyrenean peaks.
Tuesday's stage, which featured a 40-mile ride down from the Aspin pass, wasn't suited for a possible Armstrong win as long as he was surrounded by other " and mostly younger " riders.
After a plodding day of climbs, his 38-year-old legs weren't ready to battle the final bunch sprint won by France's Pierrick Fedrigo.
"It was full-gas all day," said Armstrong. "It's been awhile since I sprinted ... Just not quick enough. I'm not the best guy in the race but I still have the spirit of a fighter."
The main race contenders, including overall leader Contador and his closest rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, trailed deep in the main pack that crossed nearly 7 minutes after Armstrong's breakaway band.
Because the Texan was over 40 minutes back of Contador as the stage began, and none of the other's who sprinted ahead were in close range, the Spaniard and his biggest challengers didn't lay chase.
Armstrong's now 33:46 back, in 25th place " up from 31st.
Tuesday's trek began along two tough Pyrenean climbs " one right from the start, when Armstrong joined an attack " and then up two even harder ones: the Tourmalet and Aubisque passes.
On paper, it was the hardest day on the Tour this year.
But in terms of consequence for the race victory, Thursday's last of four stages in the mountains straddling the French-Spanish border is likely to be the most important. It features an uphill finish up the Tourmalet " one almost certain to sift out the potential winners from the losers.
Schleck, who has promised "revenge" after Contador swiped the yellow jersey on Monday in Day 2 in the Pyrenees, knows he'll have to make his move to erase his 8-second deficit and hopefully gain time on Contador.
With a mostly flat stage Friday that isn't likely to alter the standings, Saturday's penultimate stage is a 32.3-mile time trial " a discipline Contador excels in.
Within striking distance of the lead, but more likely just battling for a podium spot, are Samuel Sanchez of Spain in third, 2 minutes behind his compatriot, and Denis Menchov of Russia " 2:13 back in fourth.
Contador ran afoul of Schleck and many fans on Monday by not waiting when the Luxembourg rider had a mechanical glitch " his chain came off " in the last climb of Stage 15. Some called it a breach of cycling etiquette.
The defending champion, who's looking for his third Tour win in four years, said he and Schleck " whom Contador calls a friend and competitor " were able to patch things up in the ride Tuesday after Contador apologized on YouTube.
"We used the day to talk and we have already arranged everything," Contador said. "Both of us did not want to see our friendship broken by what happened yesterday."
Schleck all but agreed: "We are fine now."
Associated Press Writer Naomi Koppel contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.