Frenchman Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux) has won a largely uneventful stage 18 of the Tour de France, the last before the final crucial time trial that will decide the overall winner and Sunday?s stage to the Champs Elysées.

Second on the 211 kilometre stage from Cahors to Angouleme was Axel Merckx of T-Mobile. Casar – who had crashed early on when he hit a dog ? led out the final uphill sprint from a long way out to take finally win a stage in this year’s Tour after several attempts.

The four-man break, which also included Bouygues Telecom?s Laurent Lefevre and Rabobank?s Michael Boogerd got away in the first 40 kilometres and built up a maximum lead of nearly 20 minutes.

None of the riders who attacked was considered a major threat overall and so the peloton let them fight for the stage victory. Spaniard Alberto Contador, whose Discovery Channel squad rode on the front for most of the stage, retained the overall lead and is expected to seal victroy in the Tour in Saturday’s 55km time trial from Cognac to Angouleme.

Australia’s Cadel Evans (Predictor) is his closest rival but will have to pull back 1-50 on Contador to win the Tour. He gained three seconds in Angouleme after a split in the bunch left Contador in the second group but if those seconds decide the Tour de France, it will be the closest winning margin ever.

David Millar (Saunier Duval) finished 11 minutes behind Casar as he tried to rest and save his energy for one last hard effort in Saturday’s time trial.

Photo: Luc Claessen

1 Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) in 86-04-16
2 Cadel Evans (Preditor-Lotto) at 1-50
3 Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) at 2-49
4 Carlos Sastre (CSC) at 6-02
5 Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) at 6-29
6 Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) at 10-18
7 Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) at 11-36
8 Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) at 12-47
9 Juan Mauricio Soler (Baroloworld) at 13-31
10 Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel) at 13-42
45 Charly Wegelius (Liquigas) at 1-41-52
70 David Millar (Saunier Duval) at 2-26-37
140 Geraint Thomas (Barloworld) at 3-39-44

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