By Shane Stokes, with additional reporting by Gregor Brown
Michael Rasmussen surprised many with his strong stage 13 time trial and, if anything, he looks more like the possible winner of this year's Tour de France after a storming stage 14 ride to Plateau de Beille.
The maillot jaune dropped all of his rivals bar the Spaniard Alberto Contador, and while the Discovery Channel climber won the sprint for the stage, Rasmussen was the day's big winner. Their ferocious pace consigned many GC contenders to the 'better luck next year' heap, with Alexandre Vinokourov, Christophe Moreau, and Iban Mayo completely collapsing on Sunday. Moreau was worst off, finishing 34'52" back, but Vino was just 6'02" quicker. He said afterwards that he 'had no legs today,' and also had a tumble on the penultimate climb. As for Mayo, he finished 9'31" behind on a stage he was aiming to win and, once again, must be wondering what he must do to have a consistent Grand Tour.
Other challengers limited their losses today, but all conceded important time. Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel), and Carlos Sastre (CSC) all finished between 37" and 53" back. Andreas Klöden (Astana) and Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto) lost 1'52", while Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) were 2'33" and 3'45" back respectively and can wave goodbye to their yellow jersey aspirations. It was a long, tough day and many paid a price.
Rasmussen was, as might be expected, very happy with how the stage turned out. He's now 2'23" ahead of Contador and over three minutes ahead of the rest.
"Obviously Alberto Contador and Discovery Channel were the ones making the race hard in the end," he said after the presentation. "I tried to take advantage of that. Eventually Contador and I got isolated, and we had an interest to take as much time from our competitors as possible. In the end he was better and passed me in the sprint for the win."
He said that there was no arrangement to give the Spaniard the stage, even though Contador appeared to later contradict this. "We didn't speak about the stage win, I think everyone could see that we were both going for it. We went all the way to the line. It is the Tour de France, we don't give presents here. It is a well-deserved victory for Contador, he was very strong.
"This is the Plateau de Beille and it has been won by Pantani and Armstrong in the past. I would have rather beaten him in the sprint than given the victory to him," said Rasmussen.
Given the devastation behind, Rasmussen was asked if this day made it more likely that he would win the Tour. "First of all we will see how tomorrow goes," he answered.
He agreed that Contador is now his main rival. "Yes, certainly. Disco still has two cards to play. Leipheimer is still close in the classification. We still have more than 400 kilometres of riding in the Pyrénées and everyone knows that nothing is over until we reach Paris."
If Rasmussen does win the Tour, he will be a controversial victor thanks to the news that he has missed four out of competition tests and is on his final warning. The missed tests were split between UCI and the Danish national anti-doping agency, and so this 2-2 score means that the Rabobank rider falls just short of the three missed tests for either body that would result in him being banned. Recently, a former mountain biker has also accused Rasmussen of trying to trick him into transporting a blood doping product.
He was asked again today about the cloud over him but, as was the case yesterday, declined to answer such questions. A journalist then asked him how he could justify not discussing the subject at a time when there is general suspicion about cyclists. "For now, I am trying to stay focused on cycling," he answered. "I have one more week of competition. If I have to deal with everything else, then I go crazy."