Alexandre Vinokourov scored his first victory on the Tour de France since completing a doping suspension after a gutsy attack late in the race's 13th stage from Rodez to Revel on Saturday.
Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, of Saxo Bank, retained the race leader's yellow jersey with his 31sec lead on main rival and reigning champion Alberto Contador intact ahead of Sunday's first stage in the Pyrenees.
Vinokourov, who only returned to racing last year, was delighted with his win after capping a late counter-attack to Italian Alessandro Ballan with a determined drive for the finish line.
It is his first victory on the race since 2005, when he won two stages as part of the T-Mobile team.
"For me, just to be at the Tour de France is a victory. So to win a stage makes me very happy," said Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban after being caught blood doping at the race in 2007.
"When I was racing as an amateur they used to tell me that winning a stage on the Tour is similar to winning the world championships. And that's true.
"So I'm very happy, not just me but for my team, my family and all the people in Kazakhstan."
Vinokourov attacked late on Friday's stage to Mende, where he had to drop his own ambitions after Astana teammate Contador countered a late attack by Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez to overtake the Kazakh rider, eventually taking 10secs off Schleck.
This time, Vinokourov made no mistake. After former world champion Ballan had jumped out of the peloton with 8.7km remaining, the Kazakh joined a small group of riders in a bid to close the gap. By the time he had crested the summit, Ballan had run out of juice. Vinokourov soloed past with ease, and employed impressive bike handling skills on the rest of the downhill section to keep the peloton at bay.
The HTC-Columbia team of British sprinter Mark Cavendish had been hard at work all day helping to chase down a three-man breakaway, which was reeled in with 10km remaining.
But by then the American outfit had nothing left to offer.
The 1.9km-long Saint-Ferreol climb, just after the 10km to go banner, provided the perfect ramp for the late attacks which came and went, and ended their hopes of seeing Cavendish win a fourth stage on this year's race.
Cavendish went on to win the sprint for second, the Isle of Man rider thus adding precious points to his tally for the green jersey.
Despite missing out, he was quick to applaud Vinokourov's performance.
"At the end (of the stage) we weren't riding full gas," said Cavendish.
"I had to use my team the whole day so I didn't have anyone, but if any of the other sprint teams wanted to take it (chase) up maybe we could have got him back. But he did a very impressive ride.
"We didn't win the stage today... but it was an incredible ride by Vinokourov. He deserves that win."
Cavendish consoled himself by picking up 30 points to close the gap significantly to rivals Alessandro Petacchi and reigning champion and competition leader Thor Hushovd.
Once again Hushovd finished off the pace, the Norwegian crossing the line in eighth to collect 18pts. That proved insufficient for him to keep the lead of the points competition, now being led by Petacchi on 187pts, with Hushovd on 185 and Cavendish on 162.
However, Cavendish is coy about his chances.
"It's just important to minimise my losses now. Thor's always there, Petacchi's there.... we'll see what happens," he added.
Sunday's 184.5km-long 14th stage from Revel to the summit of Ax-3-Domaines is the first of four in total in the Pyrenees, which are set to stage the yellow jersey duel between Schleck and two-time champion Contador.
Vinokourov added: "This victory is also very important for the team's motivation, especially with four days in the Pyrenees remaining."
© AFP 2010
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