By Paul Verkuylen
After the display put on by the climbers in yesterday's stage to Plateau-de-Beille, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was the last mountain stage of this year's Tour de France. In fact, you'd need to look back a number of years to find the last time pure climbers were truly battling it out for the Tour's yellow jersey.
But with five mountains in today's stage to Le Louron, today could once again redefine the leader board. The 15th stage, which travels through the heart of the Hautes-Pyrénées, from Foix in the Ariege region, sees riders tackle the day's first climb after 27 kilometres of racing.
The Rabobank team of yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen showed the world yesterday it is up to the task of protecting its leader in the mountains. The Dutch ProTour team's youngster Thomas Dekker, and the ever popular Michael Boogerd, who is contesting his final Tour, put in strong performances on the 14th stage to protect the Dane's lead. Today should see the team once again on the front, guiding Rasmussen to the final 9.7 km Col de Peyresourde climb, but Rabobank won't have the luxury of another team helping this time as was the case yesterday with Saunier Duval. The Spanish squad tried to tear the race apart for Iban Mayo, who in the end didn't have what it takes to match it with the leaders on the final climb.
Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) proved that he is climbing strongly and the general classification contender will have another opportunity to gain time on his rivals on today's stage, where he will be hoping to steal the yellow away from Rasmussen. Discovery Channel leader Levi Leipheimer minimised his losses on Stage 14, and still stands a chance of reaching the podium in Paris, providing he can take more time out of Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto).
Stage 9 victor Mauricio Soler, Barloworld's sensation of the Tour, is currently minding the polka dot jersey for Rasmussen. The Colombian was seen sprinting for the King of the Mountain points yesterday, in an attempt to take the outright lead in that competition, but was still trailing by two points at the end of the stage - thanks to Rasmussen's strong final climb to take second on the stage. The Colombian could attack again on Stage 15 in order to build a lead in the mountains classification and being 11 minutes down on classification, he poses no immediate threat to the yellow jersey, which may just be enough for the leaders to let him go.
Evans suffered in the final part of yesterday's climb and lost almost two minutes to Rasmussen, as well as his second place on GC. The Australian will try to stay with the leaders and, if the legs allow it, take back some of the lost time from his rivals.
Astana's Andreas Klöden or Alexandre Vinokourov could well attack today. Klöden cracked early on yesterday's final climb, but was able to keep a steady tempo to re-capture and finish with Evans. Like Evans, Klöden will be looking to take back some time and should be recovered from his fall in the time trial.
After Saturday's time trial and yesterday's mountain stage, there is bound to be lots of heavy legs in the peloton, which will make today's stage even more exciting.