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Armstrong adds to sizable lead

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COURCHEVEL, France — With a week to go, the Tour de France all but belongs to Lance Armstrong.

The defending champion proved imperious in the mountains again, stretching his lead by 50 percent on a day when Italy's Marco Pantani captured the 15th stage.

Armstrong finished 50 seconds behind in fourth place in the tough Alpine terrain, but he extended his advantage over Jan Ullrich from 4 minutes, 55 seconds to 7:26.

With only one mountain stage left, there is precious little time for any other rider to catch the Texan. When he battled back from cancer to win last year, Armstrong led by 6:19 at this point.

After Monday's rest day, Armstrong has to negotiate only Tuesday's 122-mile course from Courchevel to Morzine before the final stages to Paris.

His only realistic challenger is Ullrich, whose conditioning has been far from strong this year. The German struggled again Sunday and finished 15th, 3:21 behind the winner.

Pantani won a stage for the second time, this one a 108-mile run from Briancon to Courchevel. He was magnificent on the climbs, just as he was two years ago when he won the Tour de France.

Pantani nearly quit cycling this year.

"It was very difficult last year," he said. "The Italian press and media have made it tough for me and my family. I really thought of finishing but after reflection, and some pain I decided I had the strength to come back and show that I can still have great moments. Today was a victory for determination."

Pantani has barely raced at the top level since being thrown out of the 1999 Giro D'Italia for failing a drug test. In the fallout of the scandal, Pantani didn't defend his Tour de France title and seemed to be drifting out of the sport until a surprise appearance at last month's Giro d'Italia.

On Sunday, he powered past longtime leader Jose Maria Jimenez in the final 1.8 miles to win by 41 seconds and move from ninth to sixth place in the standings.

"This sort of victory tastes better than normal," he said.

The 15th leg, which came before the second rest day of the race, was the fourth mountain stage and the second in the Alps. Riders faced chilly wind and sporadic showers, but for most of the way enjoyed sun and comfortable temperatures of 59 degrees.

Of the 180 riders that began the race two weeks ago, only 141 began this latest stage.

They had only 15 miles before tackling the hairpin bends of Col de Lautaret. Then came the two hardest ascents at Col de Galibier and Col de la Madeleine before the final ascent.