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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Stage 18: As it happened

Stage 18:
Annemasse to Lons-le-Saunier - 166.5km.

1 Juan Miguel Mercado
2 Vincente Garcia-Acosta @ same time
3 Dmitriy Fofonov @ 11 seconds
4 Sebastian Joly @ 11 seconds
5 Marc Lotz @ 11 seconds
6 Juan Antonio Flecha @ 11 seconds
Peloton @ 11 minutes 29 seconds

1620: One kilometre left and the sprinters are hitting the front, with Lotto giving Robbie McEwen a lead-out. Thor Hushovd is on the fringes as well. The Norwegian beats McEwen on the line, pulling a point back in the race for the green jersey.

1615: The peloton has split on the fast run-in with five kilometres to go.

1607: One kilometre to go and Mercado is on the front. Garcia-Acosta hits the front and Mercado comes off his wheel. Mercado just holds off his compatriot on the line. Back down the road Sandy Casar has jumped off the front of the peloton.

1605: The Spanish duo have two kilometres to go and hold a 20-second advantage. The four chasers are working well together, although Fofonov is finding the pace hard to cope with.

1600: Joly has got back in contact with the chase group. The activity at the front has seen the leaders extend their advantage over the peloton.

1558: Garcia-Acosta and Mercado are flying and go under the 10km-to-go banner with a clear lead. The road rolls gently downhill into Lons-le-Saunier and the Spaniards are picking up speed.

1555: Garcia-Acosta has bridged the gap to Mercado. These two have opened up a big gap to Flecha, Lotz and Fofonov. Joly is struggling.

1550: The leading group continue to work together as they go up the fourth category Cote de Nogna until Joly attacks. He is reeled in and Mercado is the next to jump off the front.

1542: Joly takes the intermediate sprint 22km from the finish. It was an uncontested sprint but should herald the start of some attacking cycling as the leaders jostle for a telling advantage on the run-in to Lons-le-Saunier.

1532: The peloton snakes over the climb and has the cut the deficit to under 11 minutes.

1522: Mercado takes the points on offer over the third category climb.

1515: Lunch is over and, as the leaders approach the Cote des Crozets, the US Postal Blue Train has clearly upped the tempo as the peloton strings out.

1505: As the teams come through the feeding station, Thomas Voeckler, who led the race and now holds the young rider's white jersey, looks to be struggling.

1455: One of the six escapees can start dreaming of a stage win. Their lead is up to 10 minutes and there seems little chance, and even less intent, of the peloton chasing them down.

1440: The escapees are speeding down the descent from the Jura and are now eight minutes clear of the peloton.

1426: The massed ranks of the main group, led by the US Postals, crest the climb almost seven minutes down.

1420: The lead group follow Mercado over the top of the climb.

1410: The peloton cross the summit of the Col six minutes 30 seconds down. After an eight kilometre downhill stretch they will tackle the third climb of the stage in the Jura Mountains, the Cote de Lajoux, a third category climb.

1400: The lead group have splintered as Mercado injects some pace into proceedings and takes the points over the climb. La Lanterne Rouge Jimmy Casper is in trouble back down the Col trailing off the back of the peloton.

1345: US Postal are dictating the pace of the peloton, but are not exactly setting a breakneck speed, content to let the leaders build on their advantage.

1330: The leaders, working well together, hit the foothills of the day's big climb, the category two Col de la Faucille. An 11.5km slog with a gradient of 6%.

1320: Following the flurry of excitement in seeing the strange sight of Armstrong in the breakaway, the day's racing has settled down. The lead group are accelerating away from the pack and their lead is nudging five minutes.

1310: Having pulled his weight in the group, Armstrong is sitting back and the tempo has tailed off. He and Simeoni sit up and wait for the peloton after Fofonov takes the intermediate sprint.

1300: Armstrong is bringing the best out of the group and the lead is growing all the time. As it touches two minutes, Jan Ullrich's T-Mobile team wake up to the fact that they had better start doing some work.

1255: Armstrong and Simeoni - not the best of friends - have bridged the gap and, with the race leader's US Postal team controlling the peloton, the gap to the field is growing.

1250: The peloton is going like the clappers, to the extent that some riders are already dropping off the back. Filippo Simeoni, one of yesterday's early escapees, goes on the attack. He is chased down by Lance Armstrong. Further up the road Fofonov takes the points in the climb.

1345: The leaders hit the first climb of the day, the category four Cote de Collonges.

1235: Having seen Jalabert fall back from the break, his Phonak team have taken up the chase at the front of the peloton. The gap is staying at a steady 40 seconds.

1225: All that effort and then Scholtz and Jalabert's hopes are spiked by flat tyres. Six remain in front.

1222: Where four failed eight have succeeded. Nicolas Jalabert, Juan Antonio Flecha, Sebastian Joly, Vincente Garcia-Acosta, Dmitriy Fofonov, Juan Miguel Mercado, Marc Lotz and Ronnny Scholtz have broken free of the bunch.

1220: Jens Voigt, David Etxebarria, Laurent Brochard and Santiago Botero are just the latest to chance their arm at an escape. It proves unsuccessful.

1210: The unrelenting pace that has been a feature of the Tour is in evidence from the off. US Postal are working hard at the front chasing down the early attacks.

1205: After being blessed by clear skies and a blazing sun for a week, as the Tour continues to head north the weather is taking a turn for the worse. Riders can expect strong winds, rain and potentially hail on the road to Lons-le-Saunier.

With the major mountain stages now over, the peloton is treated to a far easier day in the saddle.

And, with Lance Armstrong firmly in yellow by more than four minutes, there will be no major shake-ups in the general classification, barring any major accidents.

The stage ought to lend itself to a breakaway victory.

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