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Armstrong rides on Easy Street

Finish in sight, it's time to relax

PAU, France -- The high mountains safely behind him, the finishing straight almost in sight, just one thing is missing as Lance Armstrong closes in on a seventh straight and last Tour de France title: a daily stage win of his own.

Even Armstrong, who doesn't like to tempt fate by claiming a win in advance, acknowledges that ''the odds are good" that he'll have the winner's yellow jersey -- the famed maillot jaune -- on his back when he retires from cycling at the end of the race.

Completing the last of three days in the Pyrenees yesterday left just a mostly flat stage, two medium mountain stages, and the time trial for Armstrong to negotiate before the final victorious pedal up Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Armstrong's main rivals, sensing that their chances of catching the American are slipping away, tried testing him again on two rigorous climbs during yesterday's 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau.

But he brushed off the challenges, easily matching their uphill accelerations to defend his comfortable lead. He finished with his main rivals in a group behind stage winner Oscar Pereiro of Spain -- and announced he was feeling better than ever.

Armstrong called it a ''no chain" day -- meaning he felt so strong that it seemed as if his bicycle had no chain. Not bad for a 33-year-old who has ridden 1,746 miles through the north, east, and south of France, over the Alps and Pyrenees, in the past two weeks.

''I don't have a real explanation, but I felt amazing on the bike, totally confident," Armstrong said. ''The big, big days and the big difficulties are done. Now we have to stay safe, stay conservative, and look to the final time trial and try and close it out."

Pereiro completed yesterday's 112.2-mile trek in 4 hours 38 minutes 40 seconds for his and his Swiss Phonak team's first win at the Tour. Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, and other top riders were 3:24 back.

Armstrong's lead over Basso, who is looking to improve on his third-place finish last year, remains at 2:46. Mickael Rasmussen is third, 3:09 behind the six-time champion. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who is fourth overall, trails Armstrong by 5:58.

Armstrong, who was a brash young racer when he started but over time has come to respect the 102-year-old Tour's traditions, said he wants to honor the yellow jersey by riding all-out in the time trial Saturday -- a discipline in which he excels.

''I have to stay with my boys, stay out of trouble, then get to the final time trial, ride as hard as I can, represent the yellow jersey, show that he deserves to be the champ, then ride into Paris, a few laps, and that's it," he said.

In his winning Tours from 1999-2004, Armstrong won 19 individual stages, 10 of them time trials. In all but 2003, his shakiest victory, Armstrong's winning margins in Paris have exceeded 6 minutes. In 2003, he beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.

Ullrich, Basso, and Alexandre Vinokourov were among those who put on uphill bursts of speed yesterday on the steep Col de Marie-Blanque and the longer ascent up to the Col d'Aubisque, the two hardest of four climbs. But Armstrong never looked troubled.

''I'm feeling better and better every day," he said.

Pereiro's win made up for his disappointment in the 15th stage, when he placed second, beaten in a finishing sprint by Armstrong's Discovery Channel teammate, George Hincapie.

Armstrong is so relaxed that he's able to savor his last Tour. ''The amount of support is great this year," he said. ''If there's 1 in 100 that are negative, don't dwell on that, think of the 99 that are positive, and remember this Tour, remember this last week, remember these last days.

''It will never be like this again for me," he added. ''I will never be in yellow again, and that's a special thing, so I need to cherish those moments."

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