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Originally published Friday, July 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Tour de France

Tomorrow's time trial is Armstrong's last challenge

Lance Armstrong feels so sure of victory, so ready for retirement, that he doesn't want to get off his bike. Not now, with the end this...

MENDE, France — Lance Armstrong feels so sure of victory, so ready for retirement, that he doesn't want to get off his bike. Not now, with the end this tantalizingly close.

"Why don't we just not stop? Let's just keep riding, get it over with," Armstrong said when Discovery Channel teammate George Hincapie, pedaling alongside during yesterday's 18th stage, reminded him that only three days and 219.6 miles remained until the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

"That would be better for me," the six-time champion said. "The sooner it's done, the better."

Armstrong, who is retiring at the end of the race, defended his large lead in yesterday's stage, won by Marcos Serrano of Spain. Though he finished more than 11 minutes back, his lead over Ivan Basso of Italy remained unchanged at 2 minutes, 46 seconds.

So how can Armstrong best punctuate the end of his competitive career? Crushing his rivals in tomorrow's 34.5-mile individual time trial ought to do it.

Today's stage is expected to be another long, hot affair with Armstrong safely tucked into the peloton, the main pack of riders, with his trusted Discovery teammates around him.

Tomorrow is the perfect stage for some mano-a-mano action, rugged individuals racing against the clock in what cyclists call "the race of truth."

Stage 18 winner: Marcos Serrano. Overall leader: Lance Armstrong.

TV: Coverage begins at 5:30 a.m. on Outdoor Life Network. Replays at 9 and 11:30 a.m., and 2 and 5 p.m.

The truth is, no other rider can come close to Armstrong in this event. In the short, opening-stage time trial, Armstrong lost by 2 seconds to American David Zabriskie while putting more than one minute on his main opponents.

Zabriskie crashed in the fourth stage and later dropped out, so he's no longer a problem. Jan Ullrich is usually Armstrong's nemesis in the time trial, but Armstrong passed him in Stage 1, even though the German left the start gate one minute earlier.

Tomorrow's event is almost twice as long as the 18.4-mile opener, giving Armstrong more miles to dominate.

"Lance is the biggest stud in the time trial," says Chris Carmichael, his longtime coach. "He can put some big time into these other guys."

Another motivation might be that Armstrong has not won an individual stage in this Tour — he does get credit for the team time trial win in Stage 4, however. The last Tour winner without an individual stage win was American Greg LeMond in 1990.

Armstrong came into this Tour as hungry and as well-prepared as ever, quickly silencing doubters who questioned his will and ability to win again at age 33. Asked how he has managed to stay so focused for seven years, he replied: "A love for the event and a hatred for losing the event."

"I learned in 1999 that this race is bigger than any, greater than any," he added. "I also learned what it's like to win it ... and how much happiness and joy it brings to myself and to an entire program and to a country really of non-cycling fans."

Yesterday, Serrano was one of 10 riders who broke away from the main pack containing Armstrong early in the 117-mile route from Albi. He shook off the remaining members of his group on the last ascent and won his first career stage.

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