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Tour survives to set up thrilling finale

SANDY Casar won a four-man sprint to win Stage 18 of the Tour de France, from Cahors to Angouleme on Friday, despite having been knocked off his bike by a Labrador earlier in the stage.

Casar attacked with three kilometres to go, darting down the left hand side of a traffic island when his three companions all took the longer route round the outside of the bend.

He was dragged back within sight of the finish line, but having got back on to Casar's wheel the Dutchman Michael Boogerd paused fatally, allowing Casar to reopen a small gap.

As Boogerd faded Axel Merckx and Laurent Lefevre tried in vain to catch the Frenchman, who restored some national pride for the host nation after three days of almost unparalleled bitterness and recrimination.

The Tour may take years to recover fully from the chain of events set in motion by Alexandre Vinokourov's positive drug test on Tuesday and the subsequent expulsion of Michael Rasmussen, the one-time leader who performed a Lord Lucan act whenever the drug testers came to town.

However, the obituaries written by the French press have proved premature.

In defiance of the professional doom-mongers and alehouse pundits who claimed the Tour should be called off, the race itself is set for an enthralling conclusion on Saturday, with the cheats booted out and three clean-cut contenders for overall victory poised to tackle a 55.5 kilometre time trial between Cognac and Angouleme.

A split in the main field in the run in to Angouleme saw Australia's Cadel Evans, currently second, steal three seconds from the yellow jersey, Spain's Alberto Contador.

Evans is now 1:50 behind Contador, a margin he is well capable of overhauling in the time trial.

59 seconds behind them the American Levi Leipheimer has an outside chance of taking the yellow jersey if the leading duo slip up - and with the usual proviso that no further scandals break in the mean time.

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