Lance Armstrong lost a sprint finish and watched his chances of a glorious stage win in his final Tour de France slip away Tuesday.
He came in sixth in a sprint that was won by Pierrick Fedrigo of France, ahead of his compatriot Sandy Casar and Ruben Plaza of Spain.
"It was harder than I expected. It's been a while since I sprinted," Armstrong said. "Just not quick enough."
Armstrong had joined the first break of the day and remained ahead of the peloton for the entire length of the 16th stage -- the toughest in this year's Tour -- that included four major climbs including that of the famed Col du Tourmalet.
The leaders finished the gruelling 199.5 kilometres from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau in five hours 31 minutes 43 seconds, but the stragglers were some 32 minutes behind.
It was the third successive French victory in this year's race and the sixth in total.
"It was my day. Everything smiled on me," said Fedrigo, who also won a stage in 2009 and 2006 and has appeared regularly in the breakaways of this year's race. "This shows that it isn't only the great leaders who can win on the Tour de France, it's also the general riders."
There was no change in the overall standings in the race. Yellow jersey holder Alberto Contador of Spain crossed the line in the peloton along with his closest challenger, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, after Contador's strong Astana team packed the front of the peloton on the climb up the Col d'Aubisque and prevented Schleck from attacking.
Schleck had been furious with Contador after Monday's stage because he felt the Spaniard should have waited when Schleck suffered a mechanical problem during the main climb of the day. Contador surged ahead and took the yellow jersey at the end of the stage.
Contador later apologized, and on Tuesday the two came together on the stage of the French broadcaster and shook hands.
"We are fine now," Schleck said. "The Tour de France isn't going to be won by eight seconds, and there's going to be a big race between him and me the day after tomorrow."
Wednesday is a rest day in the Tour, but on Thursday the racers will turn around and ride the Pyrenees in the other direction, ending on the top of the Col du Tourmalet.
Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria was 19th Tuesday and remains 10th overall while Michael Barry of Toronto was 103rd in the stage and 95th overall.
Canadian-owned Cervelo Test Team's Thor Hushovd of Norway achieved a coup on his contenders for the top sprinter crown. While the green jersey of Alessandro Petacchi and three-time stage winner Mark Cavendish trailed along at the back on a stage that was a big struggle for them, Hushovd made it to the front of the peloton, finishing in 10th place and picking up enough points to retake the sprinter's jersey.
Armstrong acknowledged that his career was very close to being at an end now.
"Lance Armstrong is over in about four days," he said.