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It's taken two and a half weeks, but today's epic mountain stage across the Galibier, Glandon, Mollard and up to La Toussuire finally saw the main contenders going at each other hammer and tongs, and in the process producing one of the most jaw-dropping of Tour de France stages. It ended with Michael Rasmussen taking a superb lone victory and at the same time lifting himself back into the King of the Mountains jersey, but also, almost unbelievably, with race leader Floyd Landis losing more than eight minutes to his main rivals and Oscar Pereiro back in the yellow jersey.
This was a finale few would have predicted given Landis's apparent level of control on yesterday's stage to Alpe d'Huez. He admitted riding "conservatively" rather than going eyeballs out when many of his rivals were struggling, and paid the price for that policy today. There was little warning of this unfolding earlier in the day, though.
The stage started with a typically frantic rush. Rasmussen was among those who attacked early on, the Rabobank rider going clear with Lampre's Tadej Valjavec after 6km. They were quickly joined by Franaise des Jeux's Sandy Casar for the long climb up to the 'roof' of the Tour, the Col du Galibier. They were chased by a big group over the Galibier, the Tlgraphe and onto the Glandon/Croix de Fer, but steadily increased their advantage.
On the early slopes of the Glandon, Casar fell back and within a few minutes Rasmussen's pace had also seen off Valjavec. Behind these three, the chasers were being rapidly swallowed up by a yellow jersey group being driven at a fast pace by CSC trio Carlos Sastre, Christian Vande Velde and Frank Schleck. The pace wasn't quick enough, though, to prevent Levi Leipheimer launching a lone attack on the same roads where he tied up victory in the Dauphin Libr last month.
Rasmussen went over the summit of the Croix de Fer with a lead of almost five minutes on Valjavec, and Leipheimer and Casar a little further back still. On the subsequent shortish climb of the Mollard, Leipheimer dropped Casar for good and caught Valjavec, but hardly made any inroads into Rasmussen's lead. The peloton, meanwhile, was starting to react.
As Leipheimer continued what was becoming a vain pursuit of Rasmussen on the 19km climb to the finish, Phonak's Axel Merckx was attempting to keep control of the peloton for his team leader Landis. T-Mobile took over and upped the pace-making. Denis Menchov made an effort to get clear, but it was Sastre who broke T-Mobile's stranglehold. Several others tried to match the Spaniard's surge, but none quite managed it. Landis, though, did not respond at all. The fears that the American would have a bad day in the mountains at some point in the race were about to be confirmed.
In less than a kilometre, Sastre gained 55 seconds on Landis, and continued to pull away at a similar rate. By the time he caught Leipheimer, with 7km left, he was more than three minutes ahead of the yellow jersey, with a group of the other contenders 45 seconds down on the Spaniard and still being driven by T-Mobile's Michael Rogers and Klden. About 5km from the summit, Menchov attacked this group, but was then unable to respond as the German countered and pushed on with just Pereiro and Cadel Evans.
Once Rasmussen had wrapped up his Tour stage victory after 176km at the front, it was simply a question of how much time the contenders would gain over each other. In the end, Sastre came in just 13 seconds ahead of Pereiro, and 15 ahead of Evans and Klden. With the plucky Cyril Dessel still in the mix as well, the race still looks like a five-way contest with tomorrow's toughish stage to Morzine likely to provide more changes. It would be a surprise, though, if those changes resulted in Landis boosting himself back into contention from 11th place.
Stage 16, Bourg d'Oisans-La Toussuire
1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 182km in 5.36.04 (32.49kph)
2 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 1.41
3 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 1.54
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 1.56
5 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile
6 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 2.37
7 Pietro Caucchioli (Ita) Crdit Agricole
8 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r
9 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner 3.24
10 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel 3.42
23 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 10.04
1 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 74.38.05
2 Sastre 1.50
3 Klden 2.29
4 Dessel 2.43
5 Evans 2.56
6 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 3.58
7 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 6.47
8 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 7.03
9 Leipheimer 7.46
10 Zubeldia 8.06
11 Landis 8.08
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 252
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 207
3 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram 172
1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 153
2 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval 108
3 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC 74
Best young rider: Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
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