Denmark's Michael Rasmussen reinforced his grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey after finishing second in a drama-filled 14th stage won by Spaniard Alberto Contador on Sunday.
Contador, of the Discovery Channel team, claimed his first ever Tour stage after countering an attack by Rasmussen in the final 300 metres of the 197km race from Mazamet to here on Sunday. Rabobank climber Rasmussen, the subject of doping suspicion following recent revelations that he has missed four random doping controls in the past two years, now has a very real chance of winning the yellow jersey.
The 33-year-old, a former two-time winner of the race's 'King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey, has a 2min 23sec lead on Contador ahead of Monday's 15th monster climbing stage from Foix to Loudenvielle. Some of his big rivals lost out big time on what was the first of three days in total in the Pyrenees.
Cadel Evans, who began the day in second overall at 1:00, dropped to third at 3:04 after failing to match Rasmussen and Contador's pace in the final kilometres of what turned out to be a thrilling race of attrition.
In fourth place is American Levi Leipheimer, at 4:29, while Germany's Andreas Klöden is fifth a 4:38 ahead of CSC rider Carlos Sastre, at 5:50.
Rasmussen is now in prime position to claim what could turn out to be a suspicion-laden Tour victory, but he concedes he has not won the race yet. "I'm thinking about tomorrow before I'm thinking about Paris. There's still another two tough stages in the Pyrenees, and another time trial," he said.
Rasmussen brushed off claims that a discussion between him and Contador before their duel to the finish line was to arrange who would win the stage. "No, it was definitely not," he added. "This is the Tour de France, and there are no gifts here. Contador deserved his win."
Contador's gesture seemed to contradict that statement, but he said they had simply wanted to increase the lead on their rivals. "But we still fought for it. Rasmussen attacked first then I managed to counter him in the final 200 metres," said Contador, who is the first rider to win here since former teammate Lance Armstrong, in 2004. "To win here, at Plateau de Beille, with all the crowds is just fantastic."
The relatively flat time trial on the penultimate stage is a possible weakness for Contador, but the Spaniard already has a plan. "The race leader is still Rasmussen. He's strong, but today I took time from Evans. Now, if I have a good day I will attack Rasmussen," said Contador, the first rider to win here since former Discovery rider Lance Armstrong, in 2004.
The end of Sunday's stage could not come quick enough for some of Rasmussen's big rivals, who dropped down the standings.
Cadel Evans began the day in second overall at 1:00 and dropped to third at 3:04 after failing to match Rasmussen and Contador's pace in the final kilometres of what turned out to be a thrilling race of attrition. Evans tried hard, but when the attacks from Contador and Rasmussen just kept on going, the Australian's legs started to slow.
"I was going fine until Rasmussen and Contador started attacking, they're the two best climbers in the race," said Evans. "When I couldn't follow them I just tried to limit my losses because I knew it was really windy at the top (of the mountain)."
In fourth place is American Levi Leipheimer, at 4:29, while Germany's Andreas Kloden is fifth a 4:38 ahead of CSC rider Carlos Sastre, at 5:50.
Leipheimer started the race as Discovery's yellow jersey hope, but he has now been outshone by Contador. "Alberto's performance was phenomenal," said Leipheimer, who is now ready to work for the 24-year-old Spanish sensation. "I certainly have no problem with him being ahead of me. He's a great rider. If he doesn't win the Tour this year he will some day."
The Tour, meanwhile, looks over for Alexandre Vinokourov, who collapsed on the first big climb to finish at 28:50 adrift and drop to 30th over 34 minutes in arrears. Kloden was a lot stronger, staying with all the favourites until the start of the day's final climb, some of whose gradients were at a punishing 9.5 percent.
The German is now the leader of Astana, and will be expecting Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin to bond to help his victory bid. But the German admitted he was still suffering from the injuries sustained in his crash on Saturday's time trial.
"It was a very tough day," said the German. "I suffered a lot because of the injuries on my right knee after my fall in the time trial. There's still two very difficult stages to overcome, and I'll be taking it day by day."
© AFP 2007