Coasting from wine country to cognac country to a theme park today, Lance Armstrong could be forgiven for thinking the party had already started.

But the 27-year-old Texan needs to stay upright on his bike for two more days before he can pop open the champagne.

Barring a mistimed flat tire or a bad fall, Armstrong will cap his remarkable comeback from cancer with a Tour de France victory Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

He moved a step closer with today's 18th stage, won by Italian Gianpaolo Mondini. Staying safely in the pack, Armstrong came in 31st and didn't lose a second of his lead of 6 minutes 15 seconds.

"The tactic is to protect the yellow jersey from danger," said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "We're in an ideal situation, but we have to be careful there isn't an accident.

"We've had the perfect scenario play out here," he said. "I couldn't have made it up myself."

And the situation couldn't be more promising for Saturday's time trial, Armstrong's specialty. He won the race's other two time trials and is heavily favored in the last one.

His exploits have brought out a larger contingent of American fans. Penny Zim of Peoria, Ill., is in France on a cycling trip and likes what is happening to her sport.

"When you have a huge spread on cycling in the hometown paper, well, that's progress," she said.

French fans are a lot more discouraged. Their countrymen haven't won a stage on this Tour. The last time the French were shut out was in 1926.

Frenchman Jean-Cyril Robin came close today with a second-place finish; Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was third.

In the overall standings, Spaniard Fernando Escartin is second, followed by Alex Zulle of Switzerland, who is 7:28 behind.

Armstrong didn't speak at post-race news conferences yesterday or today. But on Wednesday, he lashed out at the French media for what he called "vulture journalism" over drug accusations.

"Did they express doubt about [Miguel] Indurain's five victories?" race director Jean-Marie Leblanc told the newspaper Le Figaro. "Never! Did they interview him, even one day, with the same impudence with which they are questioning Armstrong? Never. . . . Frankly, with the information at my disposal, I find these accusations scandalous."