Alexandre Vinokourov overcame the disappointment of seeing his yellow jersey hopes crumble by surging to his second victory of this year's Tour de France on the 15th stage in Loudenvielle Le Louron on Monday.
Denmark's Michael Rasmussen retained the race lead after the second of three days in the Pyrenees, but had to dig deep to avoid potential disaster. For the second day in a row, his Spanish rival Alberto Contador launched a series of attacks, this time on the way to the summit of the Col de Peyresourde 11.5km from the finish.
Rasmussen ultimately managed to follow the Discovery Channel climber when he attacked on the climb's final three kilometres, a move which left Australian Cadel Evans static - and losing more time on the pair.
The Rabobank team's controversial race leader appears just as determined as Contador, but admitted: "I was really on the verge of giving up. I think he got an advantage of getting behind (the slipstream of) a motor bike, but still, he probably has the best acceleration of anybody in the peloton.
"I'm happy I managed to stay with him."
Vinokourov meanwhile carried a late attack on a small group of stage leaders all the way after he had jumped into a large breakaway group earlier in the day. When T-Mobile's Kim Kirchen pulled ahead to join stage leader Johann Tschopp on the second last climb - the unclassified-graded and as yet untested Port de Bales - Vinokourov's victory chances looked slim.
He came over the summit with a 45sec deficit to the pair, but recuperated on the descent and then regained his legs on the final climb to the Col de Peyresourde - catching them up, and then attacking on his own. Vinokourov went on to finish the stage 51secs ahead of Kirchen, but the painful memory of losing all hope of donning the yellow jersey when the race finishes in Paris next Sunday after his disastrous 14th stage on Sunday is still lingering.
"I had a bad day yesterday and was dropped on the first climb. Once the legs went, the head went too," said Vinokourov, who could be competing in his last Tour de France. "But that's life, and I don't have any regrets."
One of the day's biggest losers was Evans, who began the day at 3:03 overall but is now 4:00 off the pace after finishing 13th at 6:27 behind Vinokourov and almost a minute behind Rasmussen and Contador.
Evans, who has been impressing with consistent climbing, was again found out by Contador's surges. Afterwards, Evans admitted he just didn't have the juice to follow.
"Unfortunately I had to race conservatively. It's not what I wanted to do, but I was completely on my own," said Evans, who had hoped for the other teams to make a move and follow Contador. "I was looking for Astana and the other guys to follow. What am I supposed to do when I'm on my own? As you saw today and yesterday, Rasmussen and Contador are pretty good on the climbs."
Vinokourov's attack may have given Astana another stage win on the race, following the Kazakh's victory in the Albi time trial, but it may not be sitting well with Germany's Andreas Klöden. Klöden, a former Tour runner-up, has been in a better position to win the race ever since his Kazakh colleague began losing time on the fifth stage when he crashed and injured both knees. But it was clear from his tactics on Monday that he has little faith in Klöden winning the race.
At least Vinokourov said he would try and help his German teammate - who is fifth overall at 5:34 - to secure a podium place in Paris on Wednesday's 15th stage, the final day in the mountains.
"It's too soon to talk about tactics, but I will try to help Andreas on the climb to the (Col de) Aubisque," said Vinokourov. "I think he can make the podium in Paris."
© AFP 2007
Also see: Stage 15 live report