Armstrong nears title as Serrano wins 18th stage

21st July 2005, Comments 0 comments

MENDE, France, July 21 (AFP) - Lance Armstrong defiantly took another step towards a seventh consecutive yellow jersey after the 18th stage of the Tour de France won by Spaniard Marcos Serrano of the Liberty team here Thursday.

MENDE, France, July 21 (AFP) - Lance Armstrong defiantly took another step towards a seventh consecutive yellow jersey after the 18th stage of the Tour de France won by Spaniard Marcos Serrano of the Liberty team here Thursday.

Serrano, one of the most experienced riders of Manolo Saiz's Liberty team, produced some superb climbing on the final difficulty of the day only two kilometres from the finish on the Mende airfield to claim his first Tour stage.

"It's incredible. I can't believe it. We do all this work and training, but you don't think you're going to win a stage on the Tour," exclaimed Serrano.

In second place was Cedric Vasseur, who finished just ahead of Belgian Axel Merckx barely 20secs after Serrano had come over the finish triumphantly.

Australian Cadel Evans pipped Armstrong at the finish line some 12 minutes later, with Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich sitting on the American's wheel.

There was little change in the general classification three days before the race finish in Paris where Armstrong will, barring catastrophe, win his seventh consecutive yellow jersey then retire from cycling.

The 33-year-old Discovery Channel team leader still leads CSC's Basso by 2min 46secs, with Denmark's Michael Rasmussen still in third.

Ullrich, the 1997 winner and five-time runner-up who is now aiming to finish in the top three, is in fourth at 5:58 but stole a few seconds from Rabobank climber Rasmussen, who he is expected to overtake on Saturday's 55.5km time trial in Saint Etienne.

After an acceleration by Basso, Armstrong, the Italian, Evans and Ullrich broke away from Rasmussen, Alexandre Vinokourov, Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer - who are all looking to protect their top ten leads as much as possible - on the day's final climb where Serrano's pace also did the damage.

The four took a small lead and eventually fought to the finish line, where it was primarily Evans and Ullrich who benefited.

Evans' 11th place meant he moved back up to the seventh place he had two days ago, Basso extended his lead slightly on Rasmussen and Ullrich reduced his deficit to Rasmussen, although Ullrich is still 5:58 behind Armstrong.

The day's biggest losers in the general classification were Rasmussen, who lost around 35secs and Vinokourov, who moved down one place to eighth.

Before then, there had a been other attempts on the day's last difficulty, a steep climb.

Carlos Da Cruz of Francaise des Jeux escaped from his breakaway companions around 13.5km from the finish line but with two climbs still to negotiate, the Frenchman's bid was always going to be hard to maintain and he was soon caught.

Once the group had pulled level just before the summit of the day's second last climb - rated a category three - Merckx pulled ahead of the group, however it seemed the French were determined to bag a stage before the end of the race and Thomas Voeckler, of the Bouygues Telecom team, soon caught the Belgian.

Soon however, three of the riders who had been part of the 10-man breakaway joined Voeckler and Merckx on the long and winding descent into Mende.

Merckx's last victory before the Tour came on a medium-sized climbing stage of the Dauphine Libere stage race in June, and the Davitamon rider looked well suited to come out top after the final climb of the day - a category two which would leave its mark on any decent climber.

With four kilometres to race Voeckler - who wore the yellow jersey for half last year's Tour - took a small lead on his four companions. However the diminutive Frenchman only served to provoke Merckx, who pulled ahead of him.

Their acceleration left Liberty's Marcos Serrano trailing around three kilometres from the summit, and soon Voeckler also found out his limits on the climb.

The sole Frenchman in the lead now was Cofidis veteran Cedric Vasseur, the only rider in the day's breakaway to have already won a stage on the Tour.

However that lacked for little. Soon, Merckx and Serrano had pulled away from Vasseur, and then Merckx was left trailing when the Spaniard took a 50-metre lead.

Serrano came over the summit of the Cote de la Croix Neuve with a 20-sec lead on his two chasers. It proved enough for him to claim the win just two kilometres further on at the Mende airfield.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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