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Fourth Tour title may be a formality

Lance Armstrong is taking the suspense out of the Tour de France.

For the fourth straight year, his rivals are stranded long before the finish. His early success is angering French fans and ruining organizers' plans to make the Tour less predictable.

But don't blame Armstrong: He's only doing his job.

"It is what they pay me to do," the Texan said Sunday. "They say, "Lance, we want you to win the Tour de France.'

"I can't really concern myself with, "Is it bad for the event?' "

After Monday's rest day, six stages remained in the world's toughest cycling race, including three grueling stretches in the Alps.

Nevertheless, a fourth consecutive title seemed easily within Armstrong's reach, thanks to his performance in the Pyrenees and on the formidable Mont Ventoux.

The U.S. Postal Service rider leads his biggest challenger, Joseba Beloki of the Once team, by nearly 4{ minutes in the overall standings.

Barring injury, illness or a sudden and drastic loss of form, that advantage is likely to grow in the coming days.

"Armstrong has shown he has the blood of champions flowing through his veins," Once team director, Manolo Saiz, told French daily Le Parisien. "He is much stronger than us; we see it day after day.

"Of course, we will still do the maximum and hope Armstrong has an off day," Saiz said. "But it would really have to be a big off day for us to catch up."

Tour organizers saved some of this year's toughest stages for last in a bid to make the race more suspenseful. In 2001, almost the whole final week was made up of flat stretches, and rivals had nearly no chance of reducing Armstrong's lead.

Today, riders are to trek from Vaison-La-Romaine, in the southern Provence region, to Les Deux Alpes ski station. Wednesday's 16th stage is probably the hardest of the three-week race, taking competitors over three exceptionally difficult climbs. Thursday's leg also runs through the Alps.

Mountain stages often are unpredictable, but Armstrong looked so strong in the first three that a serious challenge in the Alps seems unlikely.

He won the opening two mountain stages in the Pyrenees, finishing with a sprint both times.

Although he didn't win Sunday's stage on Mont Ventoux, he made the fastest climb to the summit in Tour history. He climbed 5,280 feet over 13 miles in 58 minutes, knocking 53 seconds off the best set by Marco Pantani two years ago.

Frenchman Richard Virenque took the stage, but his victory had almost no impact on Armstrong's title bid. After the leg, Virenque was 10th overall, 13:12 behind Armstrong. Meanwhile, Beloki's deficit grew from 2:28 to 4:21.

Tour de France

MONDAY: Rest day, transfer from Mont Ventoux to Vaison-La-Romaine.

LEADERS: Three-time champion Lance Armstrong leads second-place Joseba Beloki of Spain by 4:21.

TODAY: 14th stage, 140.4 miles from Vaison-La-Romaine to Les Deux-Alpes in the Alps.

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