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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 July, 2005, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Serrano climbs to stage success
Marcos Serrano took the honours in the 18th stage of the Tour de France.

The Spaniard came out on top in a gruelling three-way battle with Cedric Vasseur and Axel Merckx on a short, sharp climb late in the 189km stage.

The Liberty-Seguros rider had the legs to drop the pair on the Cote de la Croix-Neuve before powering down the kilometre descent to the finish.

Race leader Lance Armstrong finished the route from Albi to Mende 11 minutes and 18 seconds down with Ivan Basso.

The pair showed their strength on the final climb which split the peloton - and the leading challengers on the overall classification.

The only riders who could stay with the American and the second-placed Italian were Jan Ullrich and Cadel Evans - and for good reason.

We knew it was a difficult finish. You still have a lot of tactics within the race and you have to pay attention
Lance Armstrong

Ullrich was desperate to take time out of third-placed Mickael Rasmussen to help his efforts of getting on Sunday's podium in Paris, while Evans wanted to leapfrong Alexandre Vinokourov into seventh.

While Ullrich was unlikely to overhaul the King of the Mountains leader on this stage, the German did manage to cut his deficit by 37 seconds to one minute and 12 seconds and is now relishing the chance of overhauling him in Saturday's time trial.

"My aim is obviously to finish third and I'm ready to fight for this," the T-Mobile team leader said.

"Rasmussen is a good rider but I can get him. I took about two minutes off him in the opening 19km time trial and I feel much better now as I have recovered from my two crashes."

And Evans came into the home straight sporting a huge smile knowing his efforts had been fully justified. The Australian now stands 22 seconds in front of Vinokourov.

Rasmussen and Vinokourov trailed home in the next group alongside Francisco Mancebo and Levi Leipheimer, with Floyd Landis a further 12 seconds down the road.

The final spiteful climb that split the Tour's big names also accounted for those chasing the stage victory.

Serrano, Vasseur and Merckx had been part of a 10-man breakaway for much of the day that initially split on the penultimate climb, the third category Cote de Chabrits.

Merckx instigated the splintering of the group by turning up the tempo, but was unable to match it on the more testing final climb when neither he nor Vasseur had any answer to Serrano.

The 33-year-old danced in his pedals through the steepest section of the second-category Cote de la Croix-Neuve to ensure he reached the summit alone and could enjoy a comfortable run in with a 20-second cushion.

"It's incredible. I can't believe it. We do all this work and training, but you don't think you're going to win a stage on the Tour," Serrano said.

"We've been trying all week to put someone from the team into breakaways, and it just so happened that it was my turn today. The stage suited me."

Stage result (Top 10)
1. Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros at 4:37:36
2. Cedric Vasseur (Fra) Cofidis at 27 seconds
3. Axel Merckx (Bel) Davitamon - Lotto at same time
4. Xavier Zandio (Spa) Illes Balears at 1:08
5. Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas at same time
6. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Bouygues Telecom at 1:28
7. Luke Roberts (Aus) Team CSC at same time
8. Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile at 1:44
9. Egoi Martinez (Spa) Euskaltel at 2:03
10. Carlos Da Cruz (Fra) Francaise des Jeux at 2:38

Overall standings (Top 10)
1. Lance Armstrong (USA) Discovery Channel at 77:44:44
2. Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC at 2:46
3. Mickael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank at 3:46
4. Jan Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile at 5:58
5. Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears at 7:08
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner at 8:12
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto at 9:49
8. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile at 10:11
9. Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak at 10:42
10. Christophe Moreau (Fra) at Credit Agricole at 13:15

Report: BBC Five Live's Simon Brotherton



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