Lance Armstrong feels so sure of victory, so ready for retirement, that he doesn't want to get off his bike. Not now, with the end this tantalizingly close.

"Why don't we just not stop? Let's just keep riding, get it over with," Armstrong said when teammate George Hincapie, pedaling alongside during Thursday's 18th stage, reminded him that only three days and 219.6 miles remained until the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

"That would be better for me," the six-, nearly seven-time champion said. "The sooner it's done, the better."

Armstrong, who is retiring at the end of the race, defended his large lead in Thursday's stage, won by Marcos Serrano of Spain.

Armstrong finished more than 11 minutes back in a group of four with Ivan Basso of Italy, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Cadel Evans of Australia. They broke away from other riders with bursts of speed up a brutal ascent at the finish in Mende, in south-central France.

Armstrong's lead over Basso remained unchanged at 2 minutes 46 seconds. Mickael Rasmussen, in third, was slower up the last climb and slipped to 3:46 behind Armstrong.

Ullrich is still fourth, 5:58 behind Armstrong, but closed on Rasmussen. The 1997 Tour winner improved his chances of overtaking the Dane in the final time trial on Saturday.

Ullrich, who has three second-place finishes behind Armstrong, said: "We tried everything. But Lance is so strong, just like last year. We tried to attack him, but you have to accept he is the strongest. The way he rides, the way his team rides. He deserves it."

Armstrong came into this Tour as hungry and as well-prepared as ever, quickly silencing doubters who questioned his will and ability to win again at age 33. He distanced his rivals from the opening time trial and then built on his lead in the mountains.

"It's been smooth, smoother than I expected," Armstrong said. "There's never really been a true panic within the team, within myself."

Asked how he has managed to stay so focused for seven years, he replied: "A love for the event and a hatred for losing the event."

"I learned in 1999 that this race is bigger than any, greater than any," he added. "I also learned what it's like to win it . . . and how much happiness and joy it brings to myself and to an entire program and to a country really of non-cycling fans."

Armstrong said spending time with his children will be his first priority upon retirement.

Thursday's stage was run under baking sun and had five climbs, including the steep final ascent that winds up from Mende to a nearby aerodrome. That ascent is not that long -- 1.9 miles -- but climbs at a very steep gradient averaging 10.1 percent.

Serrano was one of 10 riders who broke away from the main pack containing Armstrong early in the 117-mile route from Albi. He shook off the remaining members of his group on the last ascent, scything through the dense crowds that flooded onto the road and winning a stage for the first time in his career.

He covered the route in 4:37.36 seconds. Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich and Evans were 11:18 back. Rasmussen was another 37 seconds slower than them.

Lance Armstrong protects 2-minute 46-second overall lead in the Tour de France. He'll retire at race's end on Sunday.