Reporting from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France — Lance Armstrong isn't going away. His arms and legs are covered in bruises and scabs that still oozed blood Tuesday, two days after he crashed and his Tour de France title hopes collapsed.
Yet on the most physically taxing stage of the race, 127 miles that included the toughest climb so far, 15.9 miles straight up the Col de la Madeleine, Armstrong pumped his legs, looked around and kept going.
"I feel better than I did Sunday," Armstrong said after finishing Stage 9. "That was a good sign. I'm definitely feeling better. Better than I thought I would."
Feeling much worse was Cadel Evans. The Australian who was runner-up in the race in 2007, had taken possession of the yellow jersey Sunday, the day Armstrong suffered a crash at a crucial moment and lost almost 12 minutes to the leaders.
But Evans also saw his hopes dashed by a crash on Sunday. He wept after Tuesday's stage and revealed he was riding with a broken bone in his elbow sustained in Sunday's crash. He dropped more than eight minutes to the leaders Tuesday and, like Armstrong, will have to create new goals.
So as the Tour leaves the Alps and heads south, it seems to have become a two-man race.
Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador played a private game of "catch me if you can" in the Alps, exchanging glances, sometimes words and almost always staying together.
Although Sandy Casar of France won his third-ever stage in a time of 5 hours 38 minutes 10 seconds. Schleck, 25, of Luxembourg and riding for Saxo Bank, now has the overall leader's yellow jersey, 41 seconds ahead of defending champion Contador, the Spaniard riding for Astana.
Out on the road, even without any hope of overall victory, the 38-year-old Armstrong received support. There were dozens of American flags waving and when Armstrong crested the Madeleine, there were cheers and cries of "Allez, Lance." Officially he is in 31st place overall, 15.54 minutes behind Schleck.
"The most important thing now is that I leave with a good attitude," Armstrong said. "I've had bad luck this year and I know that. I can't change that. I look over the two decades of my career and I had no bad luck. That's almost unheard of. It's logical that luck catches up with you. So I'm going to hold my head up, ride strong, ride for the team and go out having fun."
One of Armstrong's hopes is that he and his RadioShack teammates can sneak three-time Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, 36, onto the podium.
Although it's unlikely Leipheimer will be able to catch Schleck or Contador, he moved into sixth place overall Tuesday and trails Spaniard Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who is in third overall, by 1:14.
"We have got to help Levi stay up as high as he can," Armstrong said. "With his ability to time trial, hopefully we can come close to the podium if he climbs well."
The second-to-last stage of the Tour is a time trial July 24 and follows three hard stages in the Pyrenees. Leipheimer won the 2008 Olympic time trial bronze medal and the one thing more than all else that the Californian prides about himself, he said, is his ability to be as strong in the third week of a Grand Tour as he is in the first.
"I'm pretty good at hanging in there," he said. "That's what I'm looking for here. This race finishes pretty good for me. Three tough mountain stages and a time trial."
Evans tearfully apologized to his teammates Tuesday while vowing to finish the race. Armstrong, meanwhile, more clinically listed his reasons for finishing the Tour: to get Leipheimer to the podium, earn RadioShack the team victory and get a stage win or two.
Race director Christian Prudhomme told French media that he feels as if fans will be more fascinated by Armstrong now that he has fallen out of contention.
"They love to watch someone come back from suffering to find success," he said. "If Lance wins a stage, it will be even more explosive than if he won the Tour again," Prudhomme said.
Armstrong might not agree. But that's what is left for the retiring champion. Smaller goals in a big picture.