News feature, July 15, 2007
Chicken soars to race lead
Just as he did at Mulhouse in 2005, just as he did at La Toussuire last year, Danish rider Michael Rasmussen went on a blazing long range attack today to gobble up KOM points, secure a firm grip on the mountains jersey and seize the stage victory. This time, though, things were even more impressive; the Rabobank rider ended the day firmly wrapped in the yellow jersey of race leader, taking over from T-Mobile's Linus Gerdemann.
Rasmussen attacked out of the peloton on the Roselend, the first of the three category one climbs which came in the second half of the stage. Pedalling with relentless focus, he reeled in a breakaway group containing Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Antonio Colom (Astana), Christophe Le Mével (Crédit Agricole), David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne), Stéphane Goubert (Ag2r) and Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) and took maximum points at the summit.
Once onto the next climb of Hauteville, the 33 year old from Tølløse pushed on ahead with Colom and Arroyo and took the prime at the top. He then ruthlessly jettisoned his breakaway companions with 18 kilometres remaining and rode solo to victory at Tignes. His haul? The stage win, the mountains jersey, the most aggressive rider award and the first maillot jaune of his career.
Having started the day 39th overall, 4'42 behind Gerdemann, Ramussen finished 43 seconds clear in the general classification. His charge up the overall standings prompted an obvious question at the post-race press conference; namely, could he win the Tour?
"As the day went on it appeared to be a possibility," he answered. "But there are still two more weeks of racing and I still have 110 kilometres of time trials to negotiate. I think I proved in the past that it is not my speciality," he added, with a laugh.
Rasmussen had been angry with his team after Saturday's seventh stage as a break went clear and mopped up most of the KOM points. He said that they ironed things out prior to the start of stage eight and things worked out far better.
"Maybe I was too ambitions yesterday," he conceded. "I had too good legs not to race for victory, though, and I think I proved that yesterday. On the other hand, it was the first day where we were climbing and everyone was watching each other. There was a little miscommunication and I think we straightened that out this morning.
"Today we kept the break in striking distance, which was plan. The goal was to keep them at a maximum of two minutes at the base of the Roselend."
The team did even better than that as the gap was only 1'38 at the bottom. It meant that 1999 world MTB champion was able to do his magic on the slopes. Kicking clear of the bunch, he reeled in the break and started his charge for yellow, polka dot and stage win.
It was a superb day in the saddle, yet he did not celebrate when crossing the line. The reason? Taking the most time for the general classification was the priority, not showboating for the cameras.
"I knew that it would be that it would be tight for the yellow jersey so that is why I thought there was no time for celebration today," he said, when asked about his finish. "We can do that tonight; there will be plenty of time there. Today it was a matter of taking as much time as possible out of my competitors."
The riders have their first rest day on Monday, meaning that he will hold the jersey at least until the start of stage ten. That day has a total of three categories climbs, including the hors categorie ascents of the Iseran and the Galibier, and so few would bet against him staying at the top of the general classification that evening in Briançon. The following two days are mainly flat stages to Marseille and Montpellier respectively, while stage twelve is a lumpy ride to Castres.
Any of these could go the way of a breakaway group, but equally likely is that the sprinters' teams will ride hard to keep things together. If that happens, he could well find himself still in yellow starting the Albi time trial next Saturday.
That would bring mixed feelings. Back in 2005 he started the final race against the clock in a podium position on GC, but had a catastrophic day. He crashed twice, changed bikes three times and dropped from third to seventh in the overall standings.
Since then, he says, he has decided to focus on his strengths. "I have not trained specifically [for time trials] this year. I am a climber, I am a pure climber. If I want to take the jersey to Paris I will have to climb faster than I ever have in my life, because I am not sure my time trail skills have improved that much.
"Two years ago, I would have been close to ending up on the podium if I was not fiddling around on the pavement. Since then, it crossed my mind that it could work out for me in the future if the cols were be in my favour. I think that this could be the year but, of course, I still have 110 kilometres of time trials to do. So everything is still wide open."