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As Paris nears, Armstrong is in command
BOURG-EN-BRESSE, France -- Lance Armstrong doesn't have a rider threatening to cut into his lead in the final two stages of the Tour de France. He likes it that way.
Armstrong finished 24th in Friday's 18th stage, 11 minutes, 42 seconds behind winner Thor Hushovd. The Texan maintained his 5:06 lead over Joseba Beloki after Friday's 18th stage and is a virtual lock to win his fourth straight Tour de France.
After saying Thursday he sleeps well thanks to his large lead, Armstrong cruised Friday and wants to augment his lead in Saturday's individual time trial from Regnie-Durette to Macon.
"I want to show the value of the yellow jersey," Armstrong said.
Hushovd won the 109.4-mile stretch from Cluses to Bourg-en-Bresse in central France in 4:28.28. He crossed the line just ahead of Christophe Mengin, credited with the same time.
Hushovd, who rides for Credit Agricole, won his first stage in the Tour de France. He struggled to finish the second leg earlier this month after a severe leg cramp. He had to have his leg massaged by the trainer during the stage.
Australian rider Robbie McEwen finished at the front of the main pack and moved a point ahead of Germany's Erik Zabel in the standings for best sprinter.
Sunday's final stage from Melun, outside Paris, to the Champs-Elysees should be little more than a victory lap for the 30-year-old Armstrong.
Last year, Armstrong finished 6:44 ahead of Jan Ullrich of Germany. He could top that by winning the time trial, and round off what many consider his easiest victory.
"The team has made it easier for me," Armstrong said. "To have guys always there in multiples, that makes life a lot easier."
Armstrong will try to win a record-tying fifth Tour de France next year, adding to his remarkable comeback story.
In 1999, Armstrong won the first of his three Tour titles less than three years after being diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He was given a 40 percent chance of survival and underwent brain surgery and chemotherapy.
"I think about it a lot," said Armstrong, who is completely recovered. "Maybe not on a daily basis, but 90 percent of the time. It's still a big part of my life."
He has been a source of inspiration for those afflicted with cancer.
"He has given us extraordinary courage," Antoinette Joubert said before Thursday's stage from Aime to Cluses. "At hospital, when we're having chemotherapy and we see him on TV, we cry with happiness."
Joubert, a 50-year-old woman who works as a social worker with cancer patients, suffers from bone cancer and has metal pins in her spine to keep her body upright.
Joubert waited outside the U.S. Postal Service team bus for Armstrong to sign a French edition of his autobiography. She wore a T-shirt with "Lance" written on the front and surrounded by a heart.
"I should be dead," she said. "But when I see Armstrong, I go for it."