By Paul Verkuylen
Behind all the controversy surrounding the Astana team, there is still a Grand Tour underway and as the final mountain stage today, possibly more than any other stage so far, will prove decisive in the final order of the '07 Tour. This year riders will be especially eager to return to their bikes and leave Pau, putting the talk of doping behind them.
Amid the hype, it's easy to forget that while Vinokourov's A sample tested positive, he was not leading the Tour and was over 28 minutes down in 23rd spot after Stage 15, meaning his departure will have little bearing on the general classification. The departure of his team-mates, however, will see two riders removed from the top 10, shuffling the order a little. Despite being over five minutes down, Andreas Klöden held fifth place and Andrey Kashechkin was a further two minutes back in eighth when the squad quietly departed the event.
Today's Stage 16 is the last real mountain stage - another tough trip through the Pyrenees finishing on the Col d'Aubisque - and with just five days remaining, it will be now or never for those riders needing to make up time. The stage, which makes a brief journey into Spain, includes two hors catégorie climbs - the first and the last climbs of the day - allowing pure climbers another chance to attack in search of valuable seconds.
The favourites will need to go on the offensive early in today's stage in order to build up some time before the last climb, if they are to stand a chance against Rabobank. As in the past few stages, the tempo set by Rabobank on the final climb has been much too high for anyone, with the exception of Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), who will likely continue to show his climbing prowess against the yellow jersey today. Other hopefuls will need to attack long before the last climb in order to wear down the Dane and his team.
Team Discovery may send Levi Leipheimer up the road early on, if it can get the American to agree to the tactic and work for his younger Spanish team-mate. Alternatively the American ProTour team could send Yaroslav Popovych in to attack, but the rider, who's currently 12 minutes down, may not cause concern to Rabobank which has consistently pulled back gaps of seven minutes on the final climb.
Although the Tour has only once finished atop the summit of the Col d'Aubisque, in 1985 when Stephen Roche won, it has been used 42 times since 1947 - making it the second most contested climb in the Tour. Predictor-Lotto's Cadel Evans was the first across the top when it was last contested in 2005. The Australian is on route to claim his first podium place in Paris, but will need to claw back two minutes or more today if he's to be a genuine yellow jersey contender. As Evans is unable to match the acceleration of the pure climbers, he will need to start the final climb with a buffer of around three minutes in order to gain time.
Team CSC's Carlos Sastre has received little attention throughout the Tour but the Spaniard has been riding as he always does - consistently. The climbing sensation is within three minutes of the podium and has shown take it takes a mighty effort to pull him back once he gets a gap, and today is likely his last chance to take back time.
If precedent is anything to go by, Contador will attack Rasmussen today. The Spaniard seems to be on a vendetta to dislodge the Dane from the top spot, and if his final climb of Col de Peyresourde during Stage 15 is an indicator then it should make for an exciting stage finale.