Lons-Le-Saunier, France — When Lance Armstrong lays down the law in the Tour de France, other riders sometimes have no choice but to obey. Just ask Filippo Simeoni.
The Italian, who is involved in a legal battle with the five-time champion, tried to speed ahead of the pack Friday on the Tour's 18th stage. Armstrong's reaction was unequivocal: No way.
Even though Simeoni is way down in the overall standings and cannot threaten Armstrong's march to a record sixth Tour victory, the Texan chased after him.
Their animosity stems from Simeoni's testimony against sports doctor Michele Ferrari, with whom Armstrong has ties. Ferrari faces allegations of providing performance enhancers to riders and in 2002, Simeoni told an Italian court that Ferrari advised him to take drugs.
Ferrari has testified that he never prescribed or administered banned substances.
The result at this Tour is bad blood between Armstrong and Simeoni.
"All he wants to do is destroy cycling and destroy the sport that pays him, and that's wrong," the Texan said after his extraordinary move to rein in Simeoni.
The Italian was trying to catch a group of six riders who, in an effort to win, pulled away from the main pack early in the stage through eastern France.
Armstrong went tearing after him. When he and Simeoni caught the escape group, the riders there told Simeoni he was not welcome. They knew that their chances of winning the stage were nil if Armstrong stayed with them. Simeoni eventually demurred, breaking off his attack and returning to the main pack -- with Armstrong.
"Armstrong demonstrated to the entire world what type of person he is," Simeoni said. "It is not reasonable that a great champion doesn't give a chance to a small rider like me and the others. ... I suffered an injustice from him while everyone was watching."
Juan Miguel Mercado, who was part of the escape group Simeoni wanted to join, went on to win, beating fellow Spaniard Vicente Garcia Acosta in a sprint at the finish at Lons-Le-Saunier.
The stage win was 26-year-old Mercado's first in two Tours. He finished 36th last year.
He completed the 103.2 miles in 4 hours, 4 minutes, 3 seconds.
"It's a fantastic day," he said. "I had the good fortune of being in the right escape."
Simeoni only could rue what might have been.
"I felt very, very good and I made a great move to get to the front," he said. "When I understood that Armstrong would stay there because I was there, out of respect for the other riders I sat up and went back."
That Armstrong felt the need to spike Simeoni's effort showed both the depth of his anger at the Italian and that he is feeling so confident about a sixth Tour victory that he can afford to take his mind off the race momentarily.
Armstrong said other riders congratulated him when he brought Simeoni back to the main pack.
After his three wins in three days in the Alps, Armstrong and the rivals he outclassed were in no mood to race Friday. Because none of the riders in Mercado's group ranked highly in the overall standings, they let them get away, rolling in as a giant bunch 11 minutes and 29 seconds after the winner.
"It was a pretty relaxed day," Armstrong said.
His overall lead on Italian Ivan Basso remained unchanged at 4:09 -- more than enough to see him through to the finish in Paris. He will carry that advantage into the last big challenge of this Tour -- a time trial today in Besancon, where Armstrong again is a favorite to win.
The next day, barring a major disaster, Armstrong will become the first six-time winner of the 101-year-old race.