FREIBURG, Germany (AP) -- Lance Armstrong rolled into Germany's Black Forest on Thursday still the confident king of the Tour de France, even though a gaggle of daredevil sprinters led by a cocksure Italian stole the show.
Salvatore Commesso of Italy's Saeco team won the 18th stage with a gutsy performance alongside four fellow sprinters, who dashed away from the rest of the pack as soon as the 153-mile race cleared the Swiss lakeside town of Lausanne en route for Freiburg.
The Italian arrived in the German university town more than 15 minutes ahead of Armstrong and other top-ranked riders.
Commesso and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan battled it out slyly over the home stretch, trading places frequently, eyeing each other constantly like bullfighters, sometimes slowing to a crawl in hopes of preparing a decisive jump on the other.
At the final bend Commesso nearly stopped, in a vain gambit to compel Vinokourov to pass him by, then both went for broke just 400 yards from the finish, pedaling with fury. Commesso cleared the line barely a wheel-length ahead of Vinokourov to claim his second Tour stage win.
''I was lucky to have a victory come to me today,'' said Commesso, who also won a stage last year. ''I would have liked to be second before the final sprint, but Vinokourov was too intelligent to take the bait, so I just had to attack first.''
Armstrong was officially credited with 34th place as he finished alongside scores of other riders and retained his overall lead of 5 minutes, 37 seconds over Vinokourov's Deutsche Telekom teammate Jan Ullrich, who finished 42nd.
Armstrong's trouble-free performance left him just three stages before this weekend's expected second coronation on the finish line.
But at a post-race news conference, Armstrong slapped aside suggestions the Tour was his.
''Are you serious?'' he asked, tacking on an uncomfortably long pause before adding: ''The race is not over but -- next question.''
And he suggested race organizers had been wrong to put the riders through such a long, comparatively unchallenging route so near the end of the three-week-long competition.
''I don't think it's good for the drama of the race, or it's good for the aggression of the race, to have stages of 250 kilometers,'' he said, noting that with Thursday's racers ''going in one direction with a head wind almost the whole way, you're almost never going to see a really dramatic race in those conditions.''
Soon after the race left Lausanne, home to the International Olympic Committee and countless millionaires on the Swiss Riviera, a quintet of sprinters broke free from the pack and never looked back.
Averaging 28 mph through the first third of the race, the quintet -- Commesso, Vinokourov, Jacky Durand and Jean-Cyril Robin of France, and Jens Voight of Germany -- sped ahead of the pack by 27 minutes, by far the biggest such gap in this year's competition.
Also Thursday, the International Cycling Federation did a fourth round of blood tests, this time on 29 riders from six teams: Telekom, Mapei, Vini Caldirola, Festina, Rabobank and Saeco.
All the tests came back negative for unusual red corpuscle levels and showed no obvious signs of riders using erythropoietin, or EPO, a synthetic hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
On Friday, Armstrong will face his last real challenge when Ullrich tries to pick up time in an individual time trial from Freibourg to the nearby French town of Mulhouse.
Since time trials involve each rider going as fast as possible on his own, Armstrong won't have the luxury of sticking nearby Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champ who has since suffered from weight problems and inconsistent training regimes.
But even Ullrich has discounted the possibility that he could possibly gain anything close to the 5 1/2 minutes by which he currently trails Armstrong.
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