Chicken shows he's no turkey in Albi TT
By Shane Stokes, with additional reporting by Gregor Brown
If one image summed up Michael Rasmussen's superb time trial ride on stage 13 of the Tour de France, it was the moment when he thundered past his three-minute man Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) in the closing minutes of the test.
Prior to the 54 kilometre TT most were expecting the Danish competitor to be the one to crack. This was, after all, the same rider who had a disastrous ride in the penultimate day St. Etienne test in 2005. He punctured once, crashed twice and changed bikes three times as he had what was then a near-total meltdown, losing 7'47" to stage winner Lance Armstrong and dropping from third to seventh overall.
When Rasmussen told the media this week that he had done no work to improve his time trials, it appeared to further confirm that his yellow jersey was as good as toast.
Things turned out rather differently. The Rabobank rider was completely inspired by the maillot jaune, losing 2'40" by the second time check, 35.6 km from the start, but then only conceding 15 more seconds over the final 18.4 kilometres. He finished an impressive eleventh on the stage, 2'55" behind a dominant Vino, but in conceding just 1'41" to Evans he remained a minute clear in the general classification.
"Obviously the yellow jersey is a big motivating factor," a smiling Rasmussen said after the podium presentation. "Starting last today was a huge motivation. I went out and did the entire TT this morning with Eric Breukink behind me in the car and Erik Dekker beside me on the bike.
"They were then guiding me through the day and telling me how to get all the way to the finish line without blowing myself up. I also had more favourable conditions to ride in then many of my competitors. The roads had were drying up significantly at the end of the day compared to earlier on."
Valverde had started the stage second overall, 2'35" back, and given his label as The Next Big Thing plus the time trial improvements he has made in the past two years, few would have bet against him actually losing time to Rasmussen. But that is what happened, the Spaniard conceding three minutes and 13 seconds and suffering the humiliation of being caught by a rider he expected to beat.
Rasmussen was asked if he was surprised to hold on, given that he had described himself as a non-time trialist prior to the TT. "Well, I did start with 2'40" advantage today," he said. "Obviously, Valverde had a very bad day. The two nearest rivals were then Mayo and Evans, I was watching them. I am surprised to have kept the jersey with that much of an advantage [to Evans] but obviously, I was hoping to defend it today."
The Dane was under considerable pressure on Friday due to the news that he has been ruled out of world championship and Olympic participation by the Danish federation after missing some out-of-competition doping tests. He refused to talk about this, saying that he would only answer questions relating to the race.
However he did give an answer when asked if he was affected by the controversy. "I decided to put the last two days behind me and try to stay focused on the race, which is why I am here," he stated. "For the moment, I don't know what the classifications looks like. Evans is a minute behind me... him, Contador and the two Astana riders are the most dangerous. But we have to go through many kilometres of climbing in the Pyrenean stages and everything can be turned upside down many times."
Rasmussen now faces three days of mountains, normally his happy hunting ground. He'll endeavour to increase his lead between now and Wednesday evening, encouraged by the knowledge that if he can do so, his newfound TT ability will improve his chances of actually winning the race.