Alexandre Vinokourov's yellow jersey hopes suffered a crushing blow in Briançon on Tuesday as the Tour de France left the Alps after three action-filled days of mountain racing. Colombia's Mauricio Soler, of Barloworld, claimed a well-deserved victory on the ninth stage, a 159.5km run from Val d'Isere to here which included the first two unclassified-graded climbs of the race.
Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, the winner of Sunday's second alpine stage to Tignes, retained the leader's yellow jersey with another solid performance which has made him Rabobank's new title contender.
After his team leader Denis Menchov trailed in over four minutes adrift, to sit 18th overall at 7:10 behind Rasmussen, the Danish two-time winner of the race's polka dot jersey was understandably bullish. "My objective is to defend the yellow jersey for as long as possible. Why not all the way to Paris?" said Rasmussen.
Vinokourov, who has been losing time gradually to his rivals ever since sustaining knee injuries in a crash on the fifth stage, is in 21st overall at 8min 05sec behind the skinny Dane, whose ambitions will however be tested to the full in Saturday's first big time trial in Albi.
As the Galibier's steep gradients began to take their toll, Vinokourov was forced to virtually relinquish leadership of Astana to German teammate Andreas Klöden. The Kazakh also had to consult the race doctor, and then told Klöden to ride ahead in a bid to consolidate Astana's existing yellow jersey hopes.
Klöden assumed the role well, finishing the stage just 46sec behind Soler, and just seconds behind a few of his yellow jersey rivals to sit eighth overall at 3:50. His performance, coupled with Vinokourov's collapse, got too much for the Kazakh.
"On the Telegraphe (climb) I held on okay, but it was a different story on the Galibier. I was in pain all over," said Vinokourov who now has at least a five-minute deficit to a handful of his rivals. "I did what I could to stay with the contenders, and the team are working as hard as possible but it was another hard day for me."
With that, Vinokourov wiped his eyes and left to ponder the possibility that his yellow jersey dream, on possibly his final Tour de France, might be over.
Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde was a dominant force throughout the day, and is getting closer to the yellow jersey. He finished second with a late burst ahead of Australian Cadel Evans on the small climb to the finish, and is now second overall at 2:35.
"My team did some amazing work for me on the Galibier," said Valverde, who has failed to finish the past two editions due to injuries sustained in crashes. "To get up the Galibier so well is really good for my morale."
With Vinokourov, and his Astana teammate Andrey Kashechkin, trailing behind, the chance was too good to miss for Valverde, who was racing in Rasmussen's group along with Evans in the stage finale. "The tactic today was all about attack, not defence," added the Spaniard.
Evans, one of the big protagonists of the day after Contador had attacked Soler's chasing group six kilometres from the Galibier summit, moved up from sixth overall to fourth, at 2:41 behind Rasmussen. His performance was all the more impressive given he was racing most of the day with no teammates to help him counter attacks and plug the gaps.
"I'm getting over the passes (Cols) every day, everything is going as I planned," said Evans, who is bidding to become Australia's first winner of the race. "But I set pretty hard standards for myself, so to follow my plan isn't so bad."
Soler, meanwhile, was delighted with his first major win on the world's biggest race. The Colombian's dream was simply to race the Tour, but he surpassed that with a stunning display of solo riding after leaving Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych a few kilometres before the summit of the Galibier.
At the summit prior to the 38km descent towards the finish Popovych's teammate Contador caught up with him, but despite their collaboration they failed to reel in the Colombian and were eventually caught by a group which notably included Evans, Rasmussen and Valverde with four kilometres to go.
Soler came over the finish line in triumph, with a 38sec lead on Valverde and Evans. "I've always wanted to race in the Tour de France, and my dream was to win a stage," said Soler. "I didn't even think I would get a ride in this year's race, but the team selected me and this is my payback.
"I didn't know the Galibier climb at all. I just went for it and gave it everything I could."
© AFP 2007