REVEL, France (AP) – A leisurely ride through rolling French hills, a bit of excitement at the finish to get the heart racing, a win for a teammate and another rung climbed in cycling’s history books.

In all, a pretty good day at the Tour de France for Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong donned his 79th yellow jersey – only Belgian great Eddy Merckx has more – after holding his overall lead through the Tour’s longest stage. Paolo Savoldelli, Armstrong’s Italian support rider, won the stage Wednesday.

The Texan remained 2 minutes and 46 seconds ahead of his nearest challenger, Ivan Basso of Italy, and on course for his seventh straight Tour victory before retirement.

“It just keeps getting better,” Armstrong said.

He tied Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour in 1985, for the second-most yellow jerseys – and should overtake him as he closes in on a seventh straight race victory on Sunday.

Armstrong came into this Tour with 66 jerseys and, if he holds the lead to Paris, will retire with 83. Merckx won 111 in the 1960s and 70s, but Armstrong has more Tour titles – a record six compared to five for Merckx, Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil.

While Armstrong likes the company he’s in, the mark isn’t something he’s thought much about.

“I have to be honest, I don’t keep count of those things,” Armstrong said this week. “I don’t know if I deserve to pass a guy like Hinault.”

He keeps some jerseys for himself, but says he gives others to his teammates, friends and supporters, or auctions them for charity.

Savoldelli’s victory in the 17th stage was the third for Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team at this Tour.

George Hincapie won in the Pyrenees and the squad also won the team time trial. Armstrong, who has always won at least one individual stage in his previous six Tour triumphs, has yet to do so this year – but is eyeing victory in the final time trial on Saturday.

Savoldelli was part of a breakaway group that built up a lead of more than 24 minutes over Armstrong’s following pack.

Because the riders ahead were no threat to his overall lead, Armstrong did not give chase – settling instead for a slow pedal past rolling hills, picturesque villages and freshly harvested fields. Riders chatted and even joked with television crews filming the race.

Armstrong hammed it up for TV viewers – a clear indication that the pressure on him eased when he emerged from the last day in the high mountains on Tuesday with his comfortable lead intact.

“George, George,” he shouted to Hincapie, urging him to speak to the cameras.

“I’m working, I can’t speak,” Hincapie said as he pedaled.

Their average speed over the second and third hours of the 148.8-mile trek across southern France from Pau to Revel was less than 25 mph – slower than usual.

“The only reason we sent guys in the break today was so we can work less and come out with another win,” Hincapie said. “Unbelievable.”

Savoldelli finished in 5 hours, 41 minutes, 19 seconds, riding at average of 26.1 mph to claim his first Tour win.

“It’s been a very lucky year for me,” said the 32-year-old, who also won his second Giro d’Italia this year, overcoming injuries and health problems that almost ended his career.

He joined Armstrong’s squad from the rival T-Mobile outfit – and appears to be relishing the experience.

“There is only one Armstrong. The more I see him the more I realize that he is on another planet,” Savoldelli said.

Armstrong finished in a small group 22:28 behind. He was still riding when Savoldelli crossed the line, hearing the news from his team director over his race radio.

“It was surreal,” Armstrong said. “We all looked at each other and said: Did he just say that Paolo won the stage?”‘

His Discovery squad is also leading the Tour’s team standings.

Armstrong’s lead over Basso remained unchanged, and he maintained a 3:09 advantage over Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark.

Armstrong has just two more stages and the last time trial to negotiate before Sunday’s ride into Paris.

While his victory appears assured, the race for the rest of the field is still on.

Going into the last of four hills on Wednesday’s route, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team began to speed up. Ullrich and teammate Alexandre Vinokourov accelerated, taking other racers by surprise. Armstrong and seven other riders managed to match the quick pace, but a large bunch of other racers did not and were dropped. They included Australia’s Cadel Evans and American Floyd Landis, who both started the stage just ahead of Vinokourov in seventh and eighth place, respectively.

But they finished 20 seconds slower than Vinokourov. That was enough to vault the Kazakh rider past both Evans and Landis, into seventh place. Ullrich remains fourth.

AP-ES-07-20-05 1746EDT

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