American closes in on sixth title

Saturday, July 24, 2004

LONS-LE-SAUNIER, France -- Lance Armstrong took it easy Friday with his record sixth straight Tour de France crown all but won, allowing Spain's Juan Miguel Mercado to capture the 18th stage.

After three punishing days in the Alps, where Armstrong won three times in a row, he and others in the main pack had no interest in chasing down Mercado and five other low-ranked riders who escaped ahead early in the stage through eastern France from Annemasse.

Armstrong and his main rivals finished with the same time in the trailing pack, so his overall lead of 4 minutes, 9 seconds over Ivan Basso remained intact. It should carry him to the finish in Paris on Sunday.

"It was a pretty relaxed day," the Texan said.

The pack was still riding when Mercado beat countryman Vicente Garcia Acosta in a sprint finish at Lons-Le-Saunier. The stage win was the 26-year-old rider's first in two Tours. He finished 36th overall in his first Tour last year.

"It's a fantastic day," said Mercado, the third rider from his Quick Step-Davitamon team to win a stage this year. "I had the good fortune of being in the right escape."

Armstrong, his rivals thoroughly beaten, was so relaxed he even had time during the 103.2-mile stage to tend to a little personal animosity with an Italian rider who has taken legal action against him.

Even though Filippo Simeoni represents no threat to Armstrong's imminent Tour victory, the five-time champion appeared determined not to let the Italian get ahead.

Armstrong, in a highly unusually move for a rider who is generally extremely careful, at one point surged off with Simeoni in pursuit of Mercado's escape group. They caught that group, stayed with them for a few minutes, and then suddenly eased up and waited for the trailing pack to catch up.

"It was bizarre, really strange," Mercado said.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Armstrong to act as he did. But an official from Armstrong's team suggested the champion's motives were personal.

Simeoni, an Italian with the Domina Vacanze squad, has testified against controversial sports doctor Michele Ferrari, with whom Armstrong has ties. Ferrari faces accusations of providing performance-enhancing substances to riders.

"It surely had something to do with what has happened," said Johan Bruyneel, sports manager of Armstrong's team. "Nobody was expecting it, and it wasn't planned, either."

Simeoni told an Italian court in 2002 that Ferrari advised him to take performance enhancers.

Armstrong was cryptic is explaining his motives for chasing Simeoni.

"I was protecting the interests of the peloton," he said, referring to the main pack. "Other riders were very, very thankful."

Sebastien Joly, a French rider who was in the escape group, said: "I think it was a reaction of pride on Armstrong's part."

The escape riders knew that their chances of winning the stage were nil while Armstrong was with them. So they asked Simeoni to leave, Joly explained.

"When he let go, Lance had the kindness to do the same thing," he said.

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