FUTUROSCOPE, France -- Coasting from wine country to cognac country to a theme park, Lance Armstrong could be forgiven for thinking the party had already started.
But the 27-year-old Texan needs to stay upright on his bike for two more days before he can pop open the champagne.
Barring a mistimed flat tire or a bad fall, Armstrong will cap his remarkable comeback from cancer with a Tour de France victory Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
He moved a step closer with Friday's 18th stage, won by Italy's Gianpaolo Mondini. Staying safely in the pack, Armstrong came in 31st and didn't lose a second of his lead of 6 minutes, 15 seconds.
"The tactic is to protect the yellow jersey from danger," said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "We're in an ideal situation, but we have to be careful there isn't an accident."
"We've had the perfect scenario play out here," he said. "I couldn't have made it up myself."
And the scenario couldn't be more promising for Saturday's time trial, Armstrong's specialty. He won the race's other two time trials and is heavily favored in the last one.
His exploits have brought out a larger contingent of American fans. Penny Zim of Peoria, Ill., is in France on a cycling trip and likes what is happening to her sport.
"When you have a huge spread on cycling in the hometown paper, well, that's progress," she said.
French fans are a lot more discouraged. Their countrymen haven't won a stage on this Tour. The last time the French were shut out was in 1926.
Frenchman Jean-Cyril Robin came close Friday with a second-place finish, and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakstan was third.
In the overall standings, Spain's Fernando Escartin is second, followed by Alex Zulle of Switzerland at 7:28 behind.
The 117-mile stage began in Jonzac and finished in Futuroscope, a futuristic science fiction park in central France. The riders passed from Bordeaux's wine country into cognac country. "Cognac Loves Armstrong," read a banner in the town's main street.
In yet another labor protest along the route, workers from Cognac, angry at the multinational corporations they say are making huge profits off them, briefly disrupted the start of the race.
But the Cognac protesters were not entirely confrontational. They handed cups of brandy to drivers passing ahead of the cyclists -- in full view of smiling gendarmes.
On Thursday, a labor protest by firemen caused a momentary ruckus.
The stage began with an early break by five riders, including Frenchmen Frederic Bessy and Christophe Mengin. The group shrank and grew throughout the stage, and with 15 miles to go, 13 riders were in front by just more than two minutes.
One of five Frenchmen in the group, national champion Francois Simon, made a valiant attempt toward the end but was outraced by Mondini, who attacked with two miles to go and went unchallenged.
Armstrong didn't speak at postrace news conferences Thursday or Friday. On Wednesday, though, he lashed out at the French media for what he called "vulture journalism" over repeated drug accusations.
Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said he was appalled by such conduct.
"Did they express doubt about (Miguel) Indurain's five victories?" Leblanc told the newspaper Le Figaro. "Never! Did they interview him, even one day, with the same impudence with which they are questioning Armstrong? Never."
"Frankly, with the information at my disposal, I find these accusations scandalous."
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