Armstrong Maintains Lead in Tour de France

Friday, July 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOURG-EN-BRESSE, France (AP) _ Norwegian rider Thor Hushovd won Friday's 18th stage of the Tour de France, and overall leader Lance Armstrong maintained his 5-minute advantage with two stages remaining.

Armstrong, seeking his fourth straight Tour title, finished in 24th place, 11 minutes, 42 seconds behind Hushovd, who beat France's Christophe Mengin in a sprint finish.

Armstrong's lead over his nearest rival, Spain's Joseba Beloki, was unchanged at 5:06.

The 30-year-old Texan is expected to extend 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 Mengin, who had the same time.

Danish rider Jakob Piil, whose foot came out of the pedal in the final stretch, finished third, 5 seconds behind the winner.

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.

In Thursday's final mountain stage of the three-week race, the last chance for riders to make a serious move, Armstrong retained the lead.

``I sleep pretty good at night with the lead that we have,'' Armstrong said after the 17th stage in which he finished in 24th place, 4:36 behind winner Dario Frigo of Italy.

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 won the first of his three Tour titles in 1999, 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 in France, and elsewhere, 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 suffers from bone cancer and has metal pins in her spine to keep her body upright. The 50-year-old woman has a job as a social worker with cancer patients.

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. ``Survivor'' was written across the back, although Joubert said she is not fully recovered.

``I should be dead today,'' she said. ``But when I see Armstrong, I go for it.''