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Armstrong moves closer to fourth Tour victory

He won't say it, but he doesn't have to.

Lance Armstrong essentially clinched his fourth consecutive Tour de France a week ago in the Pyrenees, following the template he traced in previous Tours with explosive climbing in Stages 11 and 12.

Armstrong, whose lead over Joseba Beloki was 2 minutes, 28 seconds after Stage 12, has more than doubled it since to 5:06.

Raimondas Rumsas is third, 7:24 behind Armstrong.

If he doesn't crash before the end of Sunday's final stage in Champs-Elysees, the 30-year-old will become the fifth to win at least four Tours.

"I never think of celebrating until I cross the final line on the Champs-Elysees," said Armstrong, who won the prologue and two mountain stages this year to increase his career stage victories to 14. "There's still work to be done, still danger out there."

For the second time in three days, Mario Aerts finished second. Tuesday, he led a chase after the winner, Santiago Botero.

In Stage 17 on Thursday, Aerts was nipped in a three-man sprint to the finish by Dario Frigo after an 88-mile ride from Aime to Cluses that included four climbs.

The result had no effect on the overall standings at the top because the top three entered low in the standings. But Botero, who finished 11th, moved from seventh to fourth overall.

Frigo has turned his life around after being caught with a satchel full of drugs during last year's Giro d'Italia and suspended.

The trouble with his new life was Frigo was winning nearly every race before he was caught. He has not been too successful since.

But he was strong enough to pass Aerts when the sprint began with 200 meters left, finishing in 4:02:27.

"I wanted to show my true worth," Frigo said. "I still have a great desire to win even if I don't rank high in the overall standings. A victory in the mountains means a lot."

Giuseppe Guerini was third.

The main pack of chasers, including Armstrong and his major rivals, finished 4:36 behind Frigo.

The hot day and demands of the climbs took their toll. Three riders dropped out during three climbs rated first in difficulty and one rated second. That reduced the field to 153 from the 189 who started July 6.

With the Alps behind, the dropout rate should stabilize during a rolling stage today, a time trial Saturday and the final stage on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.

Tour de France

THURSDAY: State 17, an 88.04-mile stretch from Aime to Cluses, featuring four tough climbs. It was the last mountain stage.

WINNER: Dario Frigo of Italy in 4 hours, 2 minutes, 27 seconds.

HOW OTHERS FARED: Three-time champion Lance Armstrong retained the yellow jersey of the overall leader despite finishing in a pack of riders 4:36 behind Frigo. Armstrong's lead over his nearest rival, Spain's Joseba Beloki, remained at 5:06.

TODAY: Stage 18, a 109.6-mile transitional stage from Cluses to Bourg-en-Bresse, north of Lyon, with a rolling profile.

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