By Paul Verkuylen
As expected the Albi time trial yesterday shook up the general classification and presented the major contenders for the overall victory in Paris. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the performance of Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), who not only held on to the yellow jersey, but caught his three-minute man and biggest threat on GC going into the stage, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne).
Today's stage 14 to Plateau de Beille, is only the second mountain top finish of this year's Tour and with two steep hors catégorie climbs in the final 65 kilometres, is set to once again to light up the field and see the general classification contenders attacking each other. Only 3.37 separates the top five overall and with the top ten being dominated by team Astana with three riders, and Discovery channel with two riders, the stage will pose enormous problems for overall rac leader, Rasmussen.
After showing the rest of the Tour field yesterday that he has recovered from his crash in the best possible fashion - by winning convincingly - Alexandre Vinokourov has said that his Tour is far from over. He plans on attacking in the Pyrenees, and with team-mates Andreas Kloden and fellow countryman Andrey Kashechkin both in the top six, Astana will most likely be the team that ignites the stage.
Australia's Cadel Evans finished second to 'Vino' yesterday after coming in 1.14 behind the flying Kazakh, but the Australian reduced his overall deficit on GC to just one minute even behind Rasmussen. It was a controlled ride by the Australian and puts him in an ideal situation. His team is not strong enough to help him defend the yellow jersey, but in second place he can watch the inevitable attacks from the Astana boys as they try to wear down Rasmussen. With minutes separating Evans from the other contenders, he can afford to keep an eye on all the strong GC riders and keep Rasmussen within a minute, which he should be able to peg back in the final time trial next Saturday.
Another rider that should not be discounted today is Alberto Contador, the Discovery rider who won Paris-Nice earlier this year has possibly the most explosive acceleration in the mountains, which he proved on the Galibier earlier in the Tour. With Rasmussen now being heavily marked, the Spainiard may well take his chances with a long range attack for the jersey.
This will only be the third time that the tour finishes atop the steep climb of the Plateau de Beille and if history is anything to go by, the winner of this stage may well go onto winning the tour overall, just as Macro Pantani did 1998 and Lance Armstrong in 2002 and 2004.