The Alps are gone, and now the Pyrenees await Lance Armstrong (search) again as he edges closer to retiring with a seventh straight Tour de France win. Armstrong finished comfortably in 41st place on Thursday's 12th stage and preserved his overall lead. Although it was his last day in the Alps, Armstrong had little time for sentiment.
"It didn't occur to me at all," he said.
As the French took the day off to celebrate Bastille Day (search), the national holiday, thousands cheered as David Moncoutie surged out in front to win the 116.2-mile trek from Briancon to Digne-les-Bains.
Armstrong now has a routine flat stage Friday before Saturday's first of three Pyrenean (search) climbs — where he will be without Manuel Beltran, his trusted teammate in such tricky ascents.
Beltran touched wheels with another racer and crashed on Thursday's first ascent, hitting his head on the hot tarmac. He was taken to a hospital, where scans appeared to reveal no brain damage, but he was kept overnight for observation.
Not since 2001 has Armstrong finished in Paris without all of his teammates. Beltran's role has been to use his uphill speed and stamina to help the Texan break rivals in the mountains.
"Three tough days in the Pyrenees. We don't want to lose any climbers and Triki is one of our pure climbers," Armstrong said.
Sunday's monstrously hard 15th stage — it has four category 1 climbs in a row and ends with an uphill finish so tough it has no classification — will test the resolve of Armstrong's depleted Discovery Channel team.
"There is no one really who can pick up what he was doing," team director Johan Bruyneel said. "We need all the guys and everybody knows his role. It's going to be tougher on the team of course, because it's one guy less and his job will have to be shared."
Beltran, who goes by the nickname "Triki" and has been part of Armstrong's Tour-winning team since 2003, remounted his bike and pedaled on for about 6 miles.
As Moncoutie became the 15th Frenchman since World War II to win on Bastille Day, Beltran had no concept of time or tradition, as he poured bottles of water on his face in a vain attempt to focus.
"He was asking, 'Where is the peloton? Where is the peloton?'" Bruyneel said. "We could see that he really didn't know where he was. There was no power at all and after a while he didn't even realize that he had crashed. So we forced him to stop."
Armstrong still has several strong climbers among his remaining seven support riders. They include Yaroslav Popovych, Paolo Savoldelli, Jose Luis Rubiera, and George Hincapie.
"I feel very confident that with those seven guys we can manage," Armstrong said.
Moncoutie took the lead on the Col du Corobin, the fourth of the five ascents, and the Cofidis team rider completed the route in 4 hours, 20 minutes, 6 seconds.
"It's fabulous," Moncoutie said. "I'm so happy to win. It's July 14th."
Armstrong cruised in with his main rivals in a group more than 10 minutes back.
His lead over second-place Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark stayed at 38 seconds, with French rider Christophe Moreau third, 2:34 behind the six-time champion.
Italian Ivan Basso remains 2:40 back, fourth overall, with Jan Ullrich of Germany 4:02 behind in ninth.
French television hailed Moncoutie as a "clean" winner. The furious racing speeds so far this year and the arrest on Wednesday of Italian rider Dario Frigo have fueled doubts that some riders are doping. Frigo's wife was caught with suspected doping products in her car.
Moncoutie placed sixth at the Dauphine Libere before the Tour. Even with the time made up with his win Thursday, he is 40th overall at the Tour.
"At the Dauphine Libere, I managed to stay with the best. At the Tour, I no longer can," Moncoutie said. "It is like that every year. I know that the Tour goes faster. That is the way it is. So be it. You draw the conclusions you want."
Cycling's governing body said Thursday that all blood and urine doping tests from the first week of the three-week race were negative.
Customs officers checked at least two vehicles from two separate Tour teams on Thursday but found nothing suspicious.