MENDE, France (AP) – 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 teammate George Hincapie, pedaling alongside during Thursday’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-, nearly seven-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 Thursday’s stage, won by Marcos Serrano of Spain.

Armstrong finished more than 11 minutes back in a group of four with Ivan Basso of Italy, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Cadel Evans of Australia. They broke away from other riders with bursts of speed up a brutal ascent at the finish in Mende, in south-central France.

Armstrong’s lead over Basso remained unchanged at 2 minutes, 46 seconds. Third-placed Mickael Rasmussen was slower up the last climb and slipped to 3:46 behind Armstrong.

Ullrich is still fourth, 5:58 behind Armstrong, but closed on Rasmussen.

The 1997 Tour winner improved his chances of overtaking the Dane in the final time trial on Saturday.

Ullrich, who has three second-place finishes behind Armstrong, said: “We tried everything. But Lance is so strong, just like last year. We tried to attack him, but you have to accept he is the strongest. The way he rides, the way his team rides. He deserves it.”

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.

He distanced his rivals from the opening time trial and then built on his lead in the mountains.

“It’s been smooth, smoother than I expected,” said Armstrong. “There’s never really been a true panic within the team, within myself.”

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.”

Armstrong says spending time with his children will be his first priority upon retirement.

Thursday’s stage was run under baking sun and had five climbs, including the steep final ascent that winds up from Mende to a nearby aerodrome. That ascent is not that long – 1.9 miles – but climbs at a very steep gradient averaging 10.1 percent.

There, Basso and Ullrich piled on speed, with Armstrong and Evans going with them. But Rasmussen, who was very strong in the Alps and Pyrenees, for once couldn’t keep up.

“We knew it was a difficult finish,” said Armstrong. “You still have a lot of tactics within the race, Ullrich trying to take time on Rasmussen and Ivan (Basso) trying to take time on Ullrich. You have to pay attention,” said Armstrong.

He said the 37 seconds that Ullrich gained on Rasmussen could allow him to catch the Dane in Saturday’s clock-race and take third in Paris.

“Those 30 seconds will probably be the 30 that knock him off the podium in Paris,” he said of Rasmussen.

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, scything through the dense crowds that flooded onto the road and won a stage for the first time in his career.

“It’s incredible,” said Serrano, who finished ninth in the Tour in 2001. “We work, we ride and finally we succeed.”

He covered the route in 4 hours, 37 minutes and 36 seconds. Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich and Evans were 11:18 back. Rasmussen was another 37 seconds slower than them.

Because the riders ahead were not a threat to his overall lead, Armstrong and other racers in the main pack were able to relax a little on the trek that took them under the world’s tallest bridge, near Millau.

Armstrong again joked with TV cameramen following on motorcycles.

“I’m OK for an old man,” said the 33-year-old.

Another hilly route through central France awaits today before the time trial on Saturday that should fix the finishing order for the leading riders for good before Sunday’s final ride into Paris.

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