With a savvy sense of the pack and a touch of luck, the 37-year-old Texan surprised some of the younger Tour de France contenders Monday to move within striking distance of the yellow jersey.
He made up for what his legs lack in power with road smarts during the breezy third stage along the Mediterranean, rising from 10th to third place.
Armstrong hitched a ride with a breakaway group led by old sidekick George Hincapie's Team Columbia. Mark Cavendish, a Columbia rider from Britain, won the stage for the second day in a row.
Race leader Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland kept the yellow jersey for a third day in a row. The Swiss rider with Saxo Bank extended his lead and is ahead of Columbia rider Tony Martin of Germany by 33 seconds and Armstrong by 40.
Most of the favorites were trapped by the wind during the 122-mile ride from Marseille to La Grande-Motte. Sensing the gusts were playing havoc ahead of a turn with about 18 miles to go, Armstrong simply stayed in front, outfoxing riders including Alberto Contador of Spain, the 2007 Tour winner and the favorite this year.
"Good positioning, experience, a little bit of luck," Armstrong said. "Just before that corner I was 20 guys back and I decided just that idea to move up enough to be on their wheel. And there it went.
"Whenever you see a team lined up at the front like that, you have to pay attention," he added. "You know what the wind's doing, and you see that a turn's coming up, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you have to go to the front."
Contador didn't. Neither did Levi Leipheimer of the U.S. or Cadel Evans of Australia or 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. All lost 41 seconds to Cavendish, Armstrong and Cancellara.
Contador dropped from second to fourth overall, 59 seconds behind Cancellara. Leipheimer, Armstrong's Astana teammate, slipped from sixth to 10th and is 1:11 back.
"I was moving up with a teammate and we ended up in no man's land," Contador said. "I'm not going to evaluate the team strategy because everyone will draw their own conclusions anyway. In any case, the Tour won't be decided by what happened today."
Armstrong, a seven-time champion out of retirement, agrees.
"Gained valuable time but most likely minor in scheme of 3 weeks," he wrote on his Twitter account. The race finishes July 26 in Paris. "Onward."
A 122.11-mile trek from Marseille to La Grande-Motte.
WINNER: Mark Cavendish of Britain, who won the final sprint in front of Norway's Thor Hushovd and France's Cyril Lemoine. Cavendish won his second stage in a row and his sixth overall on the Tour.
YELLOW JERSEY: Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, the winner of the opening time-trial Saturday. Tony Martin of Germany is in second, trailing the time-trial Olympic champion by 33 seconds. Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong moved up to third place, 40 seconds back.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Never say never." -- Armstrong, about the prospect of taking the yellow leader's jersey from Cancellara in today's team time trial in Montpellier.
NEXT STAGE: Today's fourth stage is a 24.2-mile team time trial in Montpellier. Armstrong's Astana team, Saxo Bank, Columbia and Garmin are considered the main contenders on a technical course.
-- Associated Press