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'Chicken' Michael Rasmussen proved his fighting abilities while taking a huge step towards wining...
The peloton making its way along this beautiful river.
'Chicken' Michael Rasmussen proved his fighting abilities while taking a huge step towards wining the 94th Tour de France. The 33 year-old Dane escaped with Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) with 5.5 kilometres to go in stage 14 on Plateau de Beille to distance Australian Cadel Evans by 1'52". Contador came through to win his first ever Tour stage with 100 metres to go and now sits 2'23" behind Rasmussen on the general classification, while Evans slipped to 3'04".
"Contador and Discovery Channel were the ones making the race hard in the end," explained Rasmussen, clad in yellow, of the charge led by Contador, Leipheimer and Popovych. "I tried to take advantage of that. Eventually Alberto Contador and I became isolated, and we had a common interest to take as much time from our competitors as possible. In the end he was better and he passed me in the sprint for the win."
The 24 year-old stayed locked on the Rabobank rider's wheel for the final metres before he shot clear to take his first stage win in his second ever Grand Tour. "It is a dream come true," stated a pleased Contador. "This was so impressive with all the fans along the road. I thought of my family and everyone who has supported me, not only in the good moments but also in the hard moments.
"It was a very important result but there are still three very difficult stages to come: two in the mountains and one time trial." Thinking of the overall, he added, "I can have a bad day, but it is the same for Rasmussen."
Rasmussen moved into the maillot jaune on stage eight to Tignes but his lead never seemed so secure as it did at the end of the 197-kilometre run today. He started the day with only one minute to Evans and 2'31" to Spaniard Contador but by the end of the day the gap to Evans was stretched by two minutes. The gap is significant for the wafer-thin climber considering the 55.5-kilometre final time trial that comes on the Tour's penultimate day.
He was in a move with Evans, Contador, Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel), Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) and Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) when the final shake up started to develop. After some kicks by Rasmussen, which Evans successfully followed, Contador delivered a punch at 5.8 kilometres to go that was initially let go. Evans forced Rasmussen to chase but as he did the pace became too much and the fighting Aussie faded on the nine percent gradients.
"It was too hard, Rasmussen and Contador were stronger," said an exhausted Evans. "Maybe they did [take more time in the GC] but I can still gain time against the clock on them."
The two front riders, who glanced at each other to confirm their task ahead, set about in a two-up mountain time trial to ditch Evans. At five kilometres to go they were 25 seconds back on Colom who was the only rider left of the day's major escape that once contained Rubén Pérez, Amets Txurruka and Carlos Barredo.
Colom was caught with 3.4 kilometres remaining while Evans was chasing but fading fast, and about to be picked up by Soler, Leipheimer and Sastre. He was further jettisoned and he found himself with Klöden around the 2.5 kilometres to go mark. They finished the stage together, with the German taking sixth and Evans seventh.
Soler, who had tried a couple of digs just before Contador stomped clear, finally broke lose of his companions just prior to the sprint for mountain points at 500 metres to go. The Colombian, in the maillot à pois rouges on loan from Rasmussen, now trails in the competition by 2 points.
American Leipheimer may not have lit up the stage but his team sure did. His consistency has paid off, allowing him to sneak into fourth for the day and fourth overall, 4'29" back. Johan Bruyneel must be happy with his charges who took one step towards achieving his three race goals; a stage (accomplished today), the white jersey of young rider (Contador leads by 9'08") and a podium spot for Leipheimer (he is only 1'25" out).
Sastre looked laboured on the demanding 15.9-kilometre climb. While Contador and Rasmussen were storming up the road the Spaniard was steadily marching his way through France's Montagne de Tabe with Leipheimer, eventually finishing fifth and is now 5'50" back on the overall.
Colom held on to take eighth over Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel).
Pre-Tour GC-favourites Valverde, Vinokourov and Moreau slid further out of contention. Valverde was popped at 12.2 kilometres to go and had the help of teammate Pereiro and then Arroyo to pace him up the climb. The 27 year-old 'Green Bullet' ended his day at 3'45" back and is now in 9'45" out of the running in a race he has yet to finish in his career.
Vinokourov crashed on the Port de Pailhères when a fan's flag became caught in Astana teammate's Serguei Ivanov wheel. The Kazakh is reported with bruises but he lost his chance of winning the race overall; he is at 34'12". "I had no legs today," said 'Vino' after the hard day of riding. Moreau, who continues to struggle, finished in the sprinters' gruppetto and is 48'13" back in the GC.
Sunday's first stage in the Pyrénées began in Mazamet, the hometown of Laurent Jalabert, and headed South into the big mountains. The route climbed out of town via the second category, nine kilometre Côte de Saint-Sarraille, across the Montagne Noir massif and then across the flats, past the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, then on to Limoux and Quillan. It continued through the pays de l'Aude before ascending the steep 17km of the hors catégorie Port de Pailhères and then the final ascent that finishes atop the similarly ranked, steep 16 kilometre Plateau de Beille climb.
165 riders set off at 11.49 AM, missing just one - Saunier Duval's sprinter Francisco Ventoso wasn't there thanks to the hard final kilometre crash he had endured two days earlier in Montpellier.
The weather was beautiful; sunny and temperatures in the mid-twenties, which was a welcomed break from the hot days of the previous week. There was a light headwind from the east-southeast, which meant the Tour riders would have the wind in their face as they approached the Pyrenean climbs.
Just outside of Mazamet was the first ascent of the day, the nine kilometre, 5.3 percent second category climb of the côte de Saint-Sarraille. The first ramps inspired an attack from Euskaltel's Ruben Perez and he was quickly joined by Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Carlos Barredo (Quick.Step Innergetic), David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval - Prodir) and Barloworld's Felix Cardenas. Schumacher touched a wheel and fell as the peloton surged after the attackers and absorbed them after three kilometres of climbing. Immediately there was a new attack by Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel - Euskadi), with Barredo and de la Fuente also going again. At the back of the race, Nicolas Jalabert and Cyril Dessel were already in trouble.
The peloton was close behind and by the summit of the Saint-Saraille climb, it was De la Fuente who led Juan Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), Juan Manuel Garate (Quick.Step – Innergetic), Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel – Euskadi), and Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom). This surge provoked a small gap off the front, with David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne), Jens Voigt (CSC), John Gadret (Ag2r Prévoyance), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Verdugo, Lefèvre, Aleksandr Kushynski (Liquigas), Barredo, Garate, Antonio Colom (Astana), de la Fuente, Kanstantsin Siutsou (Barloworld) and his team-mate Soler twenty seconds ahead of the group maillot jaune as the long descent began. The peloton was a further twenty seconds behind.
In the group maillot jaune, Rasmussen had José Ivan Gutierrez, Nicolas Portal (Caisse d'Epargne), Jorge Azanza, Ruben Perez (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Christophe Le Mével (Crédit Agricole), Sergio Paulinho, Popovych (Discovery Channel), Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom), Juan Miguel Mercado (Agritubel), Benoit Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux) and Daniel Navarro (Astana) for company. This big group caught the break to make it 27 up front, and they had almost a minute after some twenty kilometres of racing.
Cadel Evans' Predictor Lotto team were not going to let Rasmussen go anywhere and they worked hard to bring the break back fifteen kilometres later, in Villegailhenc.
This was the perfect moment for a counterattack and 6 riders managed to extricate themselves from the general confusion. The break was compact – Gutierrez, Perez, Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Barredo, Colom and Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas).
It was the right move at the right moment and after a half-hearted chase by the bunch, this sextet began to gain ground fast on the unmotivated peloton. Kuschynski took the points in the sprint in the beautiful medieval walled city of Carcassonne [46.5km], while the peloton was five minutes behind.
As the escape worked hard and the peloton awaited the upcoming assault by Astana, their lead soared and at Cepie, deep in the pays de l'Aude after some 63 kilometres of racing, the lead was now 10'10". They were no immediate threat to Rasmussen's jersey; the best placed rider in the escape was Spanish TT champ Gutiérrez, who was 28th at 15'21".
Saunier Duval was hoping to launch their climber Iban Mayo on the upcoming slopes, so they came to the front and lent the orange men of Rabobank a hand in the chase. Then, at the day's second intermediate sprint in Campagne sur Aude, Barredo beat Kuschynski. The break's lead was still ten minutes', with lunch waiting at the feed zone just ahead. There was still 37 kilometres to race to Usson-les-Bains at the base of the penultimate climb of Stage 14, the 16.8 km ascent of the Port de Pailhères. As the mountains approached, the cloud cover increased and temperatures began to drop to the mid-teens. The downslope headwind had increased to 15km/hr.
As the Tour De France threaded its way through the narrow defile of the Gorges du Saints Georges to confront the Port de Pailhères for the third time in its history, Saunier Duval was still riding hard on the front. The gap to the break was starting to fall as a result. The two Basque, two Castilian and one Belorussian rider were working well together and with 77 kilometres to race, the gap was now seven minutes. Guti was up front for Valverde, who needed to attack to get back into the race, while the two Euskaltel riders were looking to help their teammate Astarloza. Barredo and Kuschynski were opportunists looking for Tour glory.
After 129 kilometres of racing in Usson-les-Bains at the base of the Port de Pailhères, the cooler weather and strong winds had rendered the asphalt less sticky than usual on the rough, rustic country roads. While Barredo and Guti cranked up the pace in the break, causing Kuschynski to suffer on the back, Saunier Duval's Christophe Rinero and David Canada were hammering hard in the peloton, now 6 minutes behind.
The 17 kilometre ascent of the Port de Pailhères was divided in two parts; the first six kilometres are relatively easy, but after Mijanes the climb gets steeper. The final five kilometres average 8 percent. Already wearing the red dossard of most combative rider, sophomore pro Txurruka was putting the hurt on the break. First victim was Kuschynski, who dropped off the pace up front, while Colom was just hanging on the back. He was awaiting the eventual arrival of Vino & Co. Saunier Duval were still riding hard for Mayo in the peloton, where their intense rhythm had dropped French champion Moreau. He was having another bad day and had been shelled from what was left of the main bunch, as was German champion Fabian Wegmann.
As the road steepened with 6 kilometres to go, the Euskaltel boys were pulling away from Gutiérrez and Barredo, with Colom hanging on behind. The Saunier Duval led peloton was now just forty strong and 4'45" behind and closing. Rabobank was right behind Saunier Duval, with Miki Boogerd, riding his last season, protecting maillot jaune Rasmussen.
Up front, Colom had attacked and only Txurruka could cover his move at first. But as the road flattened out Perez got back, on as did Gutiérrez.
Somewhat dramatically, with seven kilometres to go to the summit of the Port de Pailhères and with 57 kilometres left to race, the hard pace up front put stage 13 winner Vinokourov in trouble. He had vowed that his GC recovery would continue today but instead he quietly slipped out the back, soon to be joined by Discovery Channel's Popovych.
The groupe maillot jaune was still 30 strong, with riders such as Thomas Dekker, Michael Boogerd and Denis Menchov of Rabobank, Cadel Evans and Chris Horner for Predictor, Levi Leipheimer, Alberto Contador and George Hincapie for Discovery Channel, Andreas Klöden, Paolo Savodelli and Andrey Kashechkin for Astana, Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck for CSC, Iban Mayo for Saunier Duval, maillot à pois Soler for Barloworld, John Gadret for Ag2r, Mikel Astarloza for Euskaltel, Triki Beltrán for Liquigas and Alejandro Valverde for Caisse d'Epargne. Dekker's hard pace was reducing this group meter by meter, as USPRO champ Hincapie and Langeveld went out the back with 3 kilometres still to ascend.
Among the huge crowds at the summit of 17-kilometre ascent, the four-man break still had a lead of 2'39" as terrible Txurruka took the KOM from the break. Long, tall Soler sprinted off the front of the chasing group to take the 5th place in the battle for KOM points, and at this point Iban Mayo – who had talked up his chances of a stage win - couldn't stay with the chase and dropped off in the final steep kilometre. However he was sure to get back on during the long descent to Ax-les-Thermes.
Five minutes after the Rasmussen group had passed, Vino finally reached the summit, waving the white flag of surrender.
A long fast descent was ahead, with 25 kilometres to Ax-les-Thermes, then another 10 kilometres of false flat to the base of the final climb of the day. Caisse d'Epargne's Pereiro tried an attack on the descent, but his move was quickly covered by super-descender Savodelli.
The leaders still had three minutes at Ax-les-Thermes with 32 kilometres to go. By this point George Hincapie and ten others had gotten back on to the chasing group and this was now 30 riders strong. His comeback would come in handy for Contador as the groupe maillot jaune chased the break across the valley floor towards the beginning of the ascent of Plateau de Beille. The USPRO champ hit the front in his Captain America jersey, leading ahead of the Rabobank teammates of Rasmussen.
With 25 kilometres to race, the four man break was still working hard together while their former companion Barredo was 15” back and chasing hard to try to get back on. Rasmussen's group was at 3'20", a large chasing group containing Merckx and 18 others was at seven minutes and Vinokourov was in another group ten minutes back.
Barredo finally clawed his way back to the break with 23km to go as behind, big George was humping hard in his 53X11 to reduce the escapees' margin. At the base of the final ascent, the gap was now down to 2'30". Perez dropped off the front group, his work done, and next was Barredo.
Tiny Txurruka was making the pace on the steep first ramps of the Plateau de Beille ascent while behind Hincapie peeled off after pulling back a minute of the breaks' lead in ten kilometres.
Rabobank's Dekker then pulled hard and dropped after 300m, so it was now Miki Boogerd's turn to ride the killer tempo for Rasmussen. Although his nickname from mountain bike days is Chicken (not from his appearance, but because he likes to eat that meat!), Rasmussen was showing himself to be more fighting cock than egg-layer as he was clearly in charge of the Tour De France.
The Dane realized that the best defence was a strong offence and Boogerd's tough pace was taking its toll as Savodelli, Beltrán, Kirchen, Langeveld, Gadret, Voigt, Karpets, Horner, Zubeldia and Mayo came off the back one after the other in the group, approximately twelve kilometres from the end. .
Two minutes up the road in the break, Astana's Colom - who hadn't taken a decent pull all day - attacked and quickly got a fifty metre gap on the others. Popovych had now hit the front in the 11 strong groupe maillot jaune to crank up the pace for an eventual attack by Contador.
Valverde had croaked with 11.5km to go and went out the back, then Menchov dropped off while Klöden was just barely hanging on, riding last wheel. Meanwhile, Miki Boogerd showed his massive character and experience as he got back to the group and immediately hit the front. He was pounding away in a huge gear, with Rasmussen, Sastre, Evans, Leipheimer, Contador, Popovych, Kashechkin, Klöden and Soler all along for the ride.
With ten kilometres to go, Colom, Txurruka and Guti were 55" behind the stage leader Colom. The Rasmussen group was 1'50" back as Popo hit the front once again and accelerated hard. His action then popped Klöden, but the Discovery Channel rider, Rasmussen and maillot blanc Contador were right there, with Evans clearly suffering and Klödi just trying to stay close. Discovery Channel had opened a big can of whup-ass on the rest of the group as Popo was having a great day on the front and Contador and Leipheimer were just behind. Rasmussen, Evans, Kashechkin and the surprising Soler were still there. Suddenly, Popo peeled off with eight kilometres to climb, then Levi went as the set-up for Contador, who made a powerful counterattack that dusted everyone except Rasmussen and Evans. Leipheimer, Sastre and Soler got back on.
Multiple attacks by Rasmussen and counters by Contador ensured that the pace yo-yoed wildly. This is the worst thing that can happen to a rider with bad legs in the mountains. With 6.5 kilometres to go, Rasmussen leaned over to maillot à pois Soler and said something to the long, lean Colombian. He immediately made multiple attacks. Contador then went again. Rasmussen went after him and suddenly it was too much for Evans, who finally cracked. The Australian lost the wheels of the two best climbers in the Tour De France and from that point tried to defend himself on the remaining kilometres of the climb.
Colom was still in the lead as Rasmussen and Contador passed the five kilometres to go banner, but his 22" margin was falling fast. Evans was at 40”, chasing desperately with Soler, Sastre and Leipheimer on his wheel, while Klöden and Kashechkin were at one minute. Rasmussen was making the pace as Contador was taking occasional pulls. Sastre accelerated hard and popped Evans again, the second time in one kilometre that the Aussie was blown out the back.
With 3.5km to race to the summit of the Plateau de Beille, Astana's last chance for glory went up in smoke as Rasmussen and Contador caught Colom. He then tried to hang on the front duo as long as possible but cracked. Sastre was leading the chase behind with Soler and Leipheimer at 30", Evans at 55" and Klöden and Kashechkin at 1'20".
As the battle of the super skinnies continued up front, Contador gesturing for Rasmussen to come through, Colom came off the back. He was was caught by the three chasers as the final kilometre began, while Evans tried to stay with the two Astana riders.
Amidst the huge crazy crowds atop the Plateau de Beille, Rasmussen and Contador finally got inside the race barriers and continued their mano a mano.
Rasmussen was riding against the left side barriers to deny the draft to Contador as there was clearly no love lost between the two riders. However it was the Discovery Channel rider who took the stage in the sprint. Soler loped across the line 37" behind, finishing just ahead of Discovery Channel's tenacious Leipheimer at 40", with CSC's Sastre at 53". He had attacked them with two kilometres to go.
Astana's Klöden and Evans came in 1'52" back, while two more Astana riders - early breakaway Colom and Kazakh rider Kashechkin - finished at 2'22". Discovery Channel's heroic Popovych was 10th, with Rabobankers Boogie Boogers and Thomas Dekker at 3'07". Alejandro Valverde's group came home at 3'45", while Vino was 81st at 28'50". This was just six minutes and two seconds ahead of the gruppetto.
There was no change to the yellow jersey after the first stage in the Pyrénées. Rabobank's Maillot Jaune Rasmussen has gone from strength to strength as the final difficult mountain stages of the 2007 Tour De France commenced. Thanks to his excellent time trial yesterday and his win today, Discovery Channel's 24 year old rising Spanish star Alberto Contador has moved from 3rd to 2nd place on GC. He is 2'23" behind the Dane and has a firm grip on the Maillot Blanc of Best Young rider.
Following his big blowup on the Plateau de Beille, Evans has now dropped to third at 3'04", losing over two minutes to Rasmussen today. However Predictor-Lotto's tough Aussie is still in the hunt. Just behind him is Leipheimer, now sitting fourth at 4'29", while Klöden has dropped two places to fifth at 4'38".
CSC's Carlos Sastre has come up one place on GC to sixth and is 5'50"back.
The rest of the top 10 is rounded out by Astana's Kashechkin (7th @ 6'58"), Euskaltel's Astarloza (8th @ 8'25"), Caisse d'Epargne's Valverde (9th @ 9'45") and another Discovery Channel rider, Yaroslav Popovych (10th @ 10'55).
Former Tour favourite and Stage 13 winner Alexandre Vinokourov moved back into the top 10 yesterday, but his poor performance today pushed the Kazakh rider down to 30th on GC, 34'14" behind the maillot jaune.
After a difficult time trial and then a hard mountaintop finish atop Plateau de Beille, Stage 15 to Foix Loudenvielle to Le Louron is the Queen stage of the 2007 Tour De France. The long, difficult Stage 15 traverses the heart of the Hautes-Pyrénées from Foix in the Ariege region, with the Col de Port as the opener after just 27.5km. It then rolls through the beautiful countryside around Saint-Girons before assaulting the challenging second half of the stage, with the steep Cat.2 Col de Portet d'Aspet and then the steeper Cat.1 Col de Menté following. The new hors catégorie ascent of the Port de Balès comes next, a 19,5km climb that averages a 6,2% grade, and with the final 10 km at a steep 8,5% this should really show who is the strongest in this years Tour.
But the terrible Stage 15 isn't done yet, as the steep 10km Col de Peyresourde awaits before the technical descent to Loudenvielle Le Louron awaits. Rabobank's Maillot Jaune Michael Rasmussen will battle the resurgent forces of Discovery Channel (who have taken command of the Team General Classification today from Astana) across the five cols of Stage 15, so look for another exciting stage Monday.
Km 27.5: Col de Port: 11.4 km climb @ 5.3 % grade / 2nd Cat.
Km 98.5: Col de Portet d'Aspet: 5.7 km climb @ 6.9 % grade / 2nd Cat.
Km 114: Col de Menté: 7.0 km climb @ 8.1 % grade / 1st Cat.
Km 159.5: Port de Balès: 19.2 km climb @ 6.2 % grade / Beyond Category
Km 184.5: Col de Peyresourde: 9.7 km climb @ 7.8 % grade / 1st Cat.
Km 68: Saint-Girons
Km 127: Marignac
Rest Day: Tuesday 24 July / Pau