MONTPELLIER, France (AP) – If Lance Armstrong keeps his lead on the steep ascents of the upcoming Pyrenees, a seventh consecutive Tour de France victory should be his.

Given his devastating form so far, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The six-time champion goes into the mountains that straddle France and Spain with a chunky margin built up over challengers in the Alps and in time trials in the first week of the three-week race.

His advantage places the onus on rivals to try to make back time in the Pyrenees, which start Saturday. But because of his sizable lead over Germany’s Jan Ullrich and others, Armstrong in theory need only ensure that none of them get too far ahead.

“Of course we’ll try to mark all the riders,” Armstrong said after Robbie McEwen of Australia won Friday’s mostly flat and fast 13th stage in a mass sprint. “But we have to also be safe and conservative.”

Leaving the race largely unchanged overall, McEwen, Armstrong and 99 other riders all finished with same time of 3 hours, 43 minutes, 14 seconds on the 107.8-mile trek from Miramas to Montpellier in southern France.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and a five-time runner-up, is 4:02 behind overall. Italy’s Ivan Basso, third last year, trails by 2:40, and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, third in a 2003 and a pre-race favorite, is 4:47 behind.

McEwen is a sprinter who is not challenging Armstrong for the overall title. The stage win was his third of this year’s Tour, and he thanked his Davitamon-Lotto team for reeling in a group of riders that raced off ahead, setting him up for his dash to the line.

“It’s not a victory for McEwen, it’s a victory for Davitamon-Lotto,” McEwen said. “Unbelievable.”

Ullrich placed 25th, Vinokourov was 27th, Armstrong was 33rd, Basso was 72nd.

It is a measure of Armstrong’s dominance again this year that he has managed to take much of the suspense out of the Tour so far from the finish in Paris on July 24. Closest to him overall is Mickael Rasmussen, just 38 seconds back. But although the Dane proved in the Alps that he can fly up climbs, he is not in Armstrong’s league in time trials.

There’s a final time trial on the penultimate day, and Armstrong should be able to brush off Rasmussen then if he hasn’t done so in the Pyrenees.

In the first time trial that opened the Tour on July 2, Rasmussen placed 174th out of the 189 riders, 3:12 slower than Armstrong, who excels in the individual race against the clock.

“Regardless what happens (today) or the next day we still have the advantage of knowing there’s a long time trial at the end,” Armstrong said.

Saturday’s stage, the first of three in the Pyrenees, has five progressively harder climbs before finishing with a steep ascent to Ax-3 Domaines.

Armstrong, looking gaunt and exhausted, placed fourth the last time the race visited the ski station in 2003 – the shakiest of his record six Tour wins.

Ullrich powered past Armstrong on the climb, cutting the American’s overall lead to just 15 seconds. Spain’s Carlos Sastre won the stage that day.

Armstrong suffered from dehydration in 2003 – a problem he is taking care to avoid again this year. Hot weather is forecast to continue Saturday.

“I’m more aware that of this idea that dehydration starts days out. You can’t get on your bike in the morning and say OK, I’m going to drink a bunch of water,”‘ Armstrong said, taking sips from a bottle during a news conference. “I knew the Pyrenees were forecast to be extremely hot, so I tried to get ahead of it two or three days ago.

“Everybody’s performance suffers in the heat,” Armstrong added. “But some riders, of course, handle it better than others.”

The Ax-3 Domaines ascent rates 1 on the rising scale of climbing difficulty that starts at 4.

Before that final ascent comes the 9.4-mile climb over the Port de Pailheres. It peaks at 6,565 feet and is so hard that it is classified as “hors categorie” – or unrated.

Together, those ascents form a “one-two punch,” Armstrong said.

“Pailheres is a very tough climb,” he added. “Very long, very steep and incredibly narrow at the top.”

Saturday’s 137-mile trek from Agde on the Mediterranean coast is followed Sunday by what Armstrong called “the hardest day of the Tour.”

The relentless 127.7-mile route from Lezat-sur-Leze has a succession of five climbs, one rated 2, the others 1, before an “hors categorie” uphill finish to Saint-Lary Soulan. It could prove to be the decisive stage this year.

Monday is a rest day before the last high mountain stage. Then come three less-demanding portions before the time trial in Saint-Etienne, in central France.

If the Tour is close, that last clock-race will be nail-biting. Armstrong is trying to ensure it won’t be. He will retire in Paris the next day and wants to finish with a seventh win. That means 100 percent concentration for now, leaving little space for philosophizing about the end of his storied career.

“I’m here living in the moment, living in the moment that requires the attitude to win,” Armstrong said.

AP-ES-07-15-05 1603EDT

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