Denmark's Michael Rasmussen strode towards a third consecutive King of the Mountains title after claiming victory on the Tour de France's eighth stage to pull on the leader's yellow jersey.
The Rabobank rider finished the 165km run from Le Grand-Bornand to the first summit finish of the race Sunday with the same classic display of climbing that has won him the race's polka dot jersey for the past two years.
On the second of three days in the Alps the race sprang into life on the day's climb to the first summit finish, on which yellow jersey favourites Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden lost more time to their rivals. The Astana team pair, riding with injuries picked up on Thursday's fifth stage, could do little when French champion Christophe Moreau launched the first of a series of attacks late on the 18km climb to the summit finish.
They eventually finished over four minutes behind Rasmussen, and pre-race favourite Vinokourov lost nearly a minute and a half to a handful of his more credible rivals.
Rasmussen took over what should be temporary possession of the yellow jersey from German race debutant Linus Gerdemann, who battled hard over the day's six climbs but missed out by less than a minute. Rasmussen now leads the 24-year-old T-Mobile rider by 43secs in the general classification going into Monday's first rest day, but the skinny Dane said he has no aims of keeping it all the way to Paris.
"There's still two weeks of racing left, and 110km of time trialling - and I think I've showed in the past it's not exactly my speciality," said Rasmussen, who now has three stage wins on the race. The Dane famously crashed a number of times in the race's second time trial in 2005.
Rasmussen started his attack on the Cormet de Roselend after 81km with a small group of riders, and he left his only remaining companion, Antonio Colom of Astana, 18km from the summit of the final climb.
In the end Rasmussen came over the finish with a lead of 2min 47sec on Spaniard Iban Mayo, of Saunier Duval, with Alejandro Valverde finishing 01sec ahead of a handful of fellow yellow jersey contenders, including Christophe Moreau, Cadel Evans and Andrey Kashechkin.
Rasmussen didn't celebrate at the finish, and later admitted: "I knew it would be pretty tight for the yellow jersey, that's why I didn't celebrate today. We can do that tonight. It was just a matter of taking as much time out of my competitors as possible."
Some of the more credible yellow jersey contenders meanwhile will be nursing their wounds.
Vinokourov, who struggled in the final kilometres of the day's sixth and last climb as Moreau launched attack after attack, finally came in 19th at 4:29 behind Rasmussen. More importantly, the Kazakh lost over a minute to Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans and Moreau and is now 5min 23sec behind the overall leader.
A defiant Vinokourov, riding his third consecutive day with over 30 stitches in deep cuts on his knees following a crash, says his Tour is far from over. "If I had lost five minutes today, it would have been over," he said.
Evans said it had been one of the most dramatic days of racing his career. "I've never seen the GC (general classification) riders attacking each other so much. When there's no one to ride (with), trust me, it's not easy."
Evans, who finished fifth overall last year, is one of the few remaining Australians on the race. Michael Rogers, of Gerdemann's T-Mobile team, was in the virtual race lead when he crashed out of the race while travelling in excess of 60km/h on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend. He later abandoned with injuries to his right hand, shoulder and knee.
Half an hour earlier compatriot Stuart O'Grady, of the CSC team, was taken to hospital after he also crashed on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend climb.
A third Australian, Robbie McEwen of Evans' Predictor-Lotto team, failed to finish within the time limits.
© AFP 2007