Lance Armstrong is right where he wants to be.

He has left the mountains of the Pyrenees and is in control of the Tour de France in the Bordeaux wine country. Victory in Paris on Sunday seems more certain with each passing day.

He stayed safely in the pack on flat ground today, finishing 51st but losing none of his commanding lead of 6 minutes 15 seconds.

Now, the 27-year-old Texan, who has overcome testicular cancer, faces only a flat stage Friday and a time trial Saturday. Then comes the final ride up the Champs-Elysees.

Around the country, as he makes his triumphant run, the link between Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong did not go unnoticed. "Go Lance -- Reach the Moon!" read a banner along the route, accompanied by an American flag.

The 17th stage was a 120-mile ride through pine forests and past vineyards. Belgium's Tom Steels won in a sprint for his third stage victory. It would have been his fourth if not for a disqualification in another stage for rough tactics.

Robbie McEwen of Australia was second and Erik Zabel of Germany was third.

The day got off to a strange start when a labor dispute greeted the riders. Three miles into the race, the cyclists were blocked by firemen protesting working conditions. "Angry Firemen!" said a banner. The race had to begin again.