Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan continued his stunning comeback from injury, winning the 13th stage of the Tour de France to relaunch his yellow jersey hopes in Albi on Saturday.
Vinokourov, still nursing injured knees from his fall in the fifth stage, moved up to ninth overall at 5min 10sec behind leader Michael Rasmussen after claiming his fourth stage win and first ever time trial win on the Tour.
Given his relative weakness in the race against the clock, Rabobank team leader Rasmussen was expected to relinquish the yellow jersey which he has worn since winning the second alpine stage to Tignes last Sunday. But the skinny Dane, more at home in the mountains than on the stiff time trial bike, defiantly finished 11th at 2:55 behind 'Vino' on a course which saw plenty of rain before drying later in the afternoon.
Rasmussen, the subject of suspicion due to revelations over four missed random doping tests in the past two years, now has a 1:00 lead over Australian Cadel Evans in the general classification. Evans, an accomplished time trialist and one of the best climbers in the peloton, was the only rider to end Astana's hopes of a 1-2-3 on the stage, the Predictor-Lotto rider finishing second behind Vinokourov at 1:14.
Despite a dramatic crash, Germany's Andreas Klöden, who was poised to take over Astana's yellow jersey bid from Vinokourov, finished third behind the Kazakh to move up to fourth overall at 2:34 behind Rasmussen. Spaniard Alberto Contador meanwhile stunned many with his seventh place at 2:18, which moved the young Discovery Channel climber up to third overall at 2:31 and over a minute ahead of his team leader Levi Leipheimer.
Astana, Evans, Contador and Rasmussen were the big winners on the day as Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, who began the stage second overall at 2:35 behind Rasmussen, dropped to 11th overall at 5:48 behind the Dane, who overtook him in the home straight.
Asked if he was now their indisputable team leader, Vinokourov said: "You could say that, because a lot of people had already ruled me out of the race. I know Rasmussen is a good climber, but the Tour is long and everyone can have an off-day. The next two stages are difficult, and I don't fear Rasmussen."
Ex-mountain biker Rasmussen said he had produced the time trial of his life. After famously crashing twice and being forced to change his bike three times on one of the Tour's long time trials two years ago, the Dane is still not a pretty sight on the time trial bike. In the end he avoided disaster, and even overtook Valverde, who had started three minutes before him, to hold on to the yellow jersey ahead of two consecutive days in the Pyrenees.
"I did the best time trial in my life," said Rasmussen. "When I saw Valverde up ahead of me it gave me an even bigger boost, as well as starting with the yellow jersey. For the first time in my life I really give it everything in the time trial."
Evans' status as a major contender continues to grow, although the Australian admits himself he could be handicapped by the lack of teammates in the Pyrenees.
"So far, so good," added Evans after emerging from a post-race doping control. "Everything is going as planned. It's a good sign, but the best is yet to come."
As Spaniards Valverde and Mayo failed to fire up, American Levi Leipheimer did his best to limit the damage finishing ninth at 2:39 behind Vinokourov. "At the beginning I thought I was okay," said Leipheimer, who is Discovery Channel's team leader.
"But I was a little bit stunned to see the first time split and Vino went fast. I just tried to keep pushing. But I want to move up the classification, that's the goal."
© AFP 2007