ARENBERG, France -- Lance Armstrong has good reason to be frustrated.
Although the 38-year-old American posted his best time trial result in five years before handling treacherous cobblestones sections with authority on Tuesday, Armstrong is already in trouble following the first three stages of the Tour de France.
The seven-time champion dropped from fifth to 18th in the overall standings and now trails the main contenders after a flat tire cost him significant time during the third stage of the race.
Armstrong, who got off to a strong start in the Tour with a fourth-place finish in last week's prologue, had another strong display during Tuesday's daunting third stage from Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, which featured seven sectors of cobbles.
Armstrong looked comfortable in the dust, handling his bike well on tiny and dented roads. At one point, Armstrong held a small lead over defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain, who ended up in 13th place, 1 minute and 13 seconds behind stage winner Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Armstrong placed 32nd, 2:08 behind.
"Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail," Armstrong told reporters at his team bus. "Today I was the nail. I have 20 days now to be the hammer."
Armstrong, who began the stage ahead of his rivals, lost about 45 seconds when he punctured in the penultimate sector of cobblestones.
"We were all just pulling through, really trying to gain as much time on Lance and the guys who were at the back," said Bradley Wiggins of Britain, who has a 41-second edge on Armstrong.
In the overall standings, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland leads Geraint Thomas by 23 seconds. Two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans is third, 39 seconds back, and Contador is ninth, 1:40 behind. Andy Schleck is sixth, 1:19 back.
Armstrong, who is 2:30 behind, admitted that his hopes of winning an eighth Tour de France title suffered a blow.
"Our chances took a knock today," Armstrong said. "I'm not going home, we'll stay in the race and we'll keep trying."
If not for the tumble, Armstrong likely would have finished with the same time as Contador, the best climber in the world.
Now trailing the Spaniard by 50 seconds, Armstrong will not only have to follow his pace in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but will also have to leave him behind on Contador's favorite playground to stand a chance of winning the race.
"We just have to keep our heads up and to take our chances on the climbs," said Armstrong, who is competing in his last Tour.
Contador avoided a disaster when he nearly crashed about 25 miles from the finish after missing a turn. He then rode the last 15 miles with the brake jammed against his rear wheel.
The slightly built Astana leader rode on cobblestones for the first time this year and was expected to have trouble during a stage he feared.
But he managed to lose only 1:13 to world champion Cadel Evans and Luxembourg's Schleck, two rivals he is likely to tame in high mountains.
"I knew that if I changed the bike would be much worse. I preferred to continue with the wheel braking," he said. "I couldn't stand up, but hey, we saved the day."
Astana manager Yvon Sanquer didn't hide his satisfaction and his relief after the stage.
"He has this capacity to control the race and an extreme motivation to stay well placed in the peloton and to fight," Sanquer said of Contador. "This a good result. We lost a bit of time but we also gained time on other rivals."
Schleck's brother Frank, considered an outsider for the title, hurtled off his bike and onto the side of the road in the fourth run of cobbles. He didn't get up, crouching in pain on the ground, and was taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken left collarbone.
After that spill, the pack splintered. Armstrong was in front of Contador after the fifth section, but then he punctured his tire in the sixth. The Spaniard's group rumbled by him until the Texan got a replacement.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "I'm not going to make any excuses. I was in good position ... there was the crash that split the group, we hung tough and tried to come back and just got a flat tire at the wrong moment."
"A 45-second wheel change, and they're gone," he added. "It was very difficult to come back."
Armstrong had no hard feelings that the pack didn't wait for him like it had on Monday, when he and several other top contenders crashed -- prompting the Cancellara-led bunch to slow down.
"It's pro bike racing, it's dog eat dog," Armstrong said. "One day you're the peacemaker and the rational mind, and the next day you're taking advantage of every opportunity."
Wednesday's fourth stage is a 95-mile ride from Cambrai to Reims, the capital of champagne. This short trek doesn't feature any major difficulty and looks tailor-made for sprinters.