Stage 18: Armstrong silences rivals' last gasps

MENDE, France -- The official countdown can begin.

Lance Armstrong shook off the final challenges from his desperate rivals in the hilly 18th stage Thursday, across the sunbaked Massif Central, to retain the yellow jersey he's donned since the Alps.

From here to Paris, only three days remain of The Armstrong Era.

"You enjoy yourself more when you know it's almost over," Armstrong said. "My career is almost over, it's a nice feeling."

Things have been going great in Armstrong's farewell Tour. There were a few challenges Thursday, but they were just speed bumps in the final laps of his remarkable career.

Marcos Serrano, a Spanish rider on the Liberty Seguros team, won as part of a long breakaway while Armstrong swatted away some attacks on the final climb up the Cote de la Croix-Neuve.

It's the final mountain of Armstrong's celebrated 14-year cycling career.

"I'm ready for my career to end," Armstrong said. "I'll come back to the Tour, not as a bike racer, but as a fan of cycling, because I love cycling."

Hilly challenge
Armstrong finally can breathe easy.

The hilly 18th stage across the Massif Central provided more of a test than most of the Tour favorites expected. The final 5-kilometer climb high above Mende, with an average gradient of 10.1 percent, was the steepest road in the Tour this year.

Armstrong once again came up under fire, but just like he's done since 1999, he fended off the aggression with relative ease.

"I don't want to say this Tour has been easy, because no Tour is easy, but there's never been a true panic moment," Armstrong said.

It was the last chance for Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich to advance, but Armstrong retained his 2 minute, 46 second lead with three stages to go.

"I tried to drop Armstrong, but he was on my wheel the entire time," said Basso, the young Italian star and Armstrong's Tour heir apparent. "It was the last summit finish. I went 100 percent, but Armstrong is too strong this year."

This stage reflects how smoothly things have gone for Armstrong.

He's yet to win a stage, but otherwise he's been in total control of the race from the start.

"I think this is Armstrong's most beautiful Tour," said Eusebio Unzue, the Spanish sport director who guided Miguel Indurain to five straight Tour wins in the early 1990s.

"Perhaps he's not quite as strong as other years, but the style with which he's controlled the race, tactically taking the time at just the right moment, it's poetic," Unzue said. "It reminds me a lot of how Indurain used to win the Tour."

One more stage victory?
Armstrong is not obsessing about being in the winless column so far this Tour.

The Tour is much like a four-day golf tournament. Tiger Woods doesn't have to birdie every hole to win, he just has to have the least amount of strokes.

The Tour is the same way. Armstrong has been able to widen his lead little by little in each of the decisive stages. Even if he doesn't win a stage, he'll still likely win the yellow jersey in Paris Sunday.

"I'm here to win the Tour a seventh time, not win stages," Armstrong said last weekend. "Winning the Tour again is the goal."

He's won 19 stages since his remarkable comeback from cancer in 1999 (he won two stages before being stricken with cancer in 1996), but he's come up short so far in 2005.

Armstrong stampeded to five stage victories last year en route to the record sixth Tour win, but this year he's more interested in winning the Tour, not padding his statistics.

The 18th stage was ideal for an Armstrong finale, but an early breakaway stole the glory. The next two stages favor the fast-twitch sprinters, though the long time trial Saturday looks to be Armstrong's last chance for a segment victory.

"He's going to go for it, he has a good chance to win," said Johan Bruyneel, the wily Belgian sport director who's helped guide Armstrong to six Tour victories.

Ullrich -- the 1997 Tour champion now sitting in fourth at just 1:12 off the podium behind third-place Michael Rasmussen -- will be gunning for a strong ride to bounce higher.

"But maybe Jan Ullrich has more to gain from that. He has to be careful to take no risks. Maybe it's better to lose 30 seconds and stay on the bike," Bruyneel said. "Ullrich has more to gain and that makes the difference in the motivation."

Relaxed in the bunch
If it looks like Armstrong is enjoying his final Tour, it's true.

While racing at breakneck speed over bumpy, dangerous roads is never a walk in the park, Armstrong is trying to soak in his final days of the Tour.

"Every day I get on the bike, it's a countdown. It's an interesting thought every day when I'm on the bike," he said. "It's special. It's still fun. I'm going to miss it, but at the same time, I'm ready to move on."

On the easier parts of the stage, Armstrong is taking time to chat to longtime rivals and companions in the peloton to say farewell.

Armstrong's remarkable career is finished in three days, something they want to honor.

"I can see he's enjoying himself on the bike," Bruyneel said. "He's counting down the days because the Tour is not over until the final lap."

Each day brings a new surprise for Armstrong.

At the end of Stage 18, he won the yellow jersey for the 80th day of his career, surpassing Tour legend Bernard Hinault on the all-time list. Only the great Eddy Merckx has more time in the yellow jersey, with 111 wins during his career from 1969-1977.

Come Sunday, Armstrong aims to earn his 83rd yellow jersey.

Tens of thousands of partisan American fans will join the throng on the Champs Elysees for Armstrong's final farewell, his dominant, seven-year reign officially coming to an end.

With Armstrong gone, the Tour will go back to normal. His rivals can't wait.

Andrew Hood is a free-lance writer living in Spain and the author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress. This is his 10th year covering the Tour de France.