Vinokourov solos to second consolation win

Alexander Vinokourov may not realize his dream of winning the Tour de France but the aggressive...

Contador puts pressure on Rasmussen on Col de Peyresourde but the maillot jaune holds

Alexander Vinokourov may not realize his dream of winning the Tour de France but the aggressive Kazakh captured a second 2007 stage victory as a consolation prize. The 33 year-old attacked from the day's escape on the Col de Peyresourde and then edged clear 3.5 kilometres from the top, with 15 kilometres remaining to the finish.

"I rode the stage at my best, especially on the descent," explained Vinokourov in barely audible French. "I was very motivated to show I have good condition and I also wanted to motivate my team."

Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) lit up the day's GC battle by repeatedly attacking maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) on the final climb and into the finish in Loudenvielle but he was unable to drop the Dane, who leads the Spaniard by 2'23" in the overall classification. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) was one of the GC-Favourites left behind in the Rasmussen/Contador fight; he trailed home with a group containing Leipheimer and Klöden 6'27" down. The Aussie is in third overall, now at 4'00".

"I could not go with them because I was alone," he said to Cyclingnews' John Trevorrow. Yesterday he seemed to be racing for the overall win but today it was more for the podium placing in Paris. "Unfortunately that is the way it is, you have to play the cards as they fall," he responded. "Unfortunately, the team does not have the budget to buy a rider who can close those gaps for me." Chris Horner was the last Predictor rider to stay with the team's captain.

'Vino' may have been ejected from the overall fight yesterday when he cracked and crashed on the Port de Pailhères, losing 28'50" by stage-end, but today he showed why he is admired by so many with his 'never say die' attacking style. The Astana rider, who turned professional in 1998 with Casino, went on the hunt with an early escape of 25 at kilometre 40. Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile), Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom) and David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) were the first to look like they could profit from the escape but 'Vino' had other plans.

Kirchen led over the misty Port de Balès to start the fast 18-kilometre descent in France's Haute-Garonne's department but Vino was leading the chase behind that also contained Americans Hincapie and Vande Velde, and Spaniards Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

"We went fast, then they went faster, and I could only go [so] fast," commented Vande Velde after his day's efforts. "Then [towards the line] I caught all the guys who thought they could go faster but Bernie K. sprinted past me. It was a great day to be in the break, though and I am pleased with my day."

'Vino' hammered across to the escape's remaining duo of Kirchen and Tschopp at 6.6 kilometres to climb. The Luxemburger and Swiss latched on but they were discarded only three kilometres later when 'Vino' lifted the pace to ride clear. "I had very good legs, I was very concentrated and I think I couldn't do better today," said the 29 year-old Kirchen. "I finished second again but behind a champion like 'Vino' that was fantastic, doing better was impossible."

He topped the Col de Peyresourde and descended as if he was a train on rails into Loudenvielle, site of Indurain's victory over Chiappucci in 1991. "I knew the final climbs from the past," continued the stage winner. "On the Port de Balès with the three leaders I was calm because I knew it was possible to catch them. On the Peyresourde, I knew if I was alone I could win. I know the last kilometres."

The GC-favourites had marked one another over the Col de Port, Col de Portet d'Aspet, Col de Menté and Port de Balès, however, on the Peyresourde it was time for Contador to give it a go. The 24 year-old Spaniard showed mucho gusto with multiple attacks on the wafer-thin race leader, which produced cheers heard all the way up and down the 9.7-kilometre climb.

Contador's first attack put the two off on their own with Evans, Leipheimer, Klöden, Valverde and Sastre trailing behind. Rasmussen was all over his machine to stay with the Spaniard as the fans, especially Basque, increased towards the summit. The young Contador attacked again two kilometres later, but it was his third attack which distanced 'The Chicken' by 40 metres. It took the Dane a good half minute to latch back to Contadors's wheel. Rasmussen then went to the front as the road space narrowed to ensure that Contador's options were limited.

"It was very hard, obviously," said a smiling Rasmussen post-stage as he ate candy. "[Contador] had a bit of advantage behind the motor bikes. He used them. But he has the best acceleration on the climbs. I was under pressure but luckily I managed to get back each time."

Was Contador held up by the officials' cars that seemed to be stalled? "No, No, No," replied the respected Spaniard.

They summited the Peyresourde together but Contador was not giving up. He hit it again on the last little rise available, two kilometres before the finish. It stretched Rasmussen to his limits but the Dane was able to keep the reins on Contador to arrive in Loudenvielle together with the Spaniard and will be looking forward to a needed rest day.

How it unfolded

Stage 15 from Foix to Loudenville was the Queen stage of the 2007 Tour De France, coming after Saturday's time trial and Sunday's hard mountaintop finish on the Plateau de Beille. The long, difficult stage traversed the heart of the Hautes-Pyrénées, departing from Foix in the Ariège region and hitting the top of the Col de Port after just 27.5km.

It was another cool, fresh day with partly cloudy skies and even a few early raindrops for the 163 remaining riders. Two were missing from the sign on, namely stage 5 winner Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), who came down with a flu and fever, and the Belgian Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux). He had stomach problems during yesterday’s stage.

The peloton passed kilometre zero at 11.28 and almost straight away, Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) attacked with Frederik Willems (Liquigas). A big group came across to them but were chased down by Rabobank after some seven kilometres. There was then a counterattack with Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Christophe Moreau (Ag2r Prévoyance) and Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel Euskadi) that had a ten second lead by the 14.5 kilometre point. These were joined by Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), who then accelerated again to be off the front with Verdugo after some 20 kilomeres of very fast racing.

In the meanwhile, Moreau and Valverde had come across to the big chasing group. But as the Col de Port started Pereiro, Menchov, Verdugo and Vinokourov were still 12 seconds ahead.

Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) then bridged across to Vinokourov and Verdugo, who were 15 seconds ahead of a major counter move with David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne), Jens Voigt (CSC), John Gadret (Ag2r Prévoyance), Tadej Valjavec (Lampre Fondital), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Christophe Le Mével (Crédit Agricole), Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), Manuel Beltrán (Liquigas), Daniel Navarro (Astana) and Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval – Prodir). These were chasing the three V's: Verdugo, Vino and Voeckler; after 22 kilometres, Verdugo was now solo, 12 seconds ahead of 10 chasers.

Those in pursuit were Arroyo, Menchov, Gadret, Stéphane Goubert (Ag2r Prévoyance), Kohl, Tschopp, Beltran, Garrate, Vinokourov and Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval – Prodir), with the peloton at 30 seconds.

Garate was first to the top of Col de Port. Tschopp and Verdugo were next, while the peloton was at 25 seconds. The front riders had covered 37.5 kilometres in the first hour, but this wasn't fast enough; they were absorbed by the peloton after 38 kilometres near the base of the descent.

On this downhill, Crédit Agricole rider Le Mével crashed and was hit by the bike of an Euskaltel rider. He abandoned with a suspected broken collarbone, while another French rider Cyril Dessel (Ag2r Prévoyance), one of the stars of last years Tour de France, also pulled out.

Up front, Kohl and Tshopp were on the attack again as the road levelled out near Castet-d'Aleu. They had a 25 second lead on a group of counterattackers, with the Rabobankers riding on the front of the peloton 55 seconds back. After 55 kilometres the front groups joined up, meaning that the leaders were now Kohl, Tschopp, Kirchen, Arroyo, Arvesen, Vandevelde, Menchov, Turpin, Zubeldia, Landaluze, Perez, Bennati, Vila, Halgand, Hincapie, Lefèvre, Albasini, Vaugrenard, Garate, Knees, Vinokourov, Ivanov, Navarro and Cobo. The peloton was five minutes back.

This big break raced onwards towards the next climbs, passing through the beautiful countryside around Saint-Girons where Bennati won the sprint after 68 kilometres. At this point Rabobank had Flecha, Weening and Niermann riding tempo on the front for maillot jaune Rasmussen.

The lead was up to 8'05" by the feed zone in Aucazien. The pace of the break across the Salat river valley floor had been torrid, with 45.7 kilometres covered in the second hour. That made for an average speed of 41.6 kilometres per hour. The best placed on GC in the break was Euskaltel's Haimar Zubeldia, sitting 13th at 12'13", and he was understandably keen on making up as much time as possible.

Consolidating the advantage

Next up for the riders was the second category Col de Portet d'Aspet, a 5.7-kilometre climb averaging 6.9 percent which was the location of the tragic death of Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli on July 15th 1995. As the bells of the village church rang out, the break rode through the village of St. Lary at the base of the ascension and then climbed hard to the summit, where Lefèvre got the points ahead of Halgand and Garate.

The break sped down the descent, passing the memorial monument to Fabio Casartelli who had crashed nearby. Ivanov flew downhill, pulling clear of the others, while Arroyo had to stop just past the monument and change bikes.

Next up was the difficult category one Col de Menté, a 7-kilometre climb which averaged 8.1 percent. The break stayed together to the top, 82 kilometres from the finish, and here Garate took the KOM ahead of Lefèvre, Halgand and the surprise sprinter-turned-climber Bennati.

Once down to the valley floor, Bennati put back on his sprinting legs and took the second intermediate prime of the day, in Marignac after 127km. The peloton was now 8’20” back and the leaders had 13 kilometres to go to the base of the hors categorie ascent of the Port de Balès. This was the first time for the Tour de France to climb the mountain as it was unpaved until last year. It was a tough 19,5 kilometre test for the riders, averaging 6.2 percent and having a final ten kilometres at an 8.5 percent grade.

Once onto the climb, Landaluze accelerated clear and was then joined by Kohl, Ivanov, Arroyo and Tschopp. These five opened up a one minute lead over the others, but Menchov attacked the second group after a few kilometres and bridged across to the front of the race.

Vinokourov was in the second half and so Ivanov dropped back to pace him up. Up front, Tschopp went clear of the leaders with 9km still to ascend. There were attacks back in the peloton, too; Astana's Andrey Kashechkin attacked and opened up a gap over the Rabobank-led main bunch. The groupe maillot jaune was down to thirty riders at this point, with Boogerd and Dekker driving ahead of Rasmussen. They were in turn followed by Yaroslav Popovych, Levi Leipheimer, Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto), Andreas Klöden (Astana), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel Euskadi), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and several others, while John Gadret (Ag2r Prévoyance), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne), Mikel Astarloza and his Euskaltel teammate Amets Txurruka had come out the back of the groupe maillot jaune.

As the hazy clouds crowning the summit of the Port de Balès came ever closer, Tschopp was five kilometres from the top and cruising along with a 30" advantage. Kirchen had attacked the chase group, followed by Landaluze, while Vino, Arroyo, Garate, Zubeldia, Cobo, Kohl, Turpin and the others didn't follow.

Kasheckhin was 6'30" back but still out in front of the Rasmussen group, which was now being led by Boogerd. Kirchen attacked near the top and passed Tschopp to reach the summit alone. Arroyo caught and left Tschopp just before the KOM line, then joined up with Kirchen on the tricky descent. Fortunately the thick fog on the climb cleared after a couple of kilometres, making things much safer for him, Kirchen and Tschopp, who had bridged after a few minutes’ chasing. The Vinokourov group had been 50” back at the top and were still behind at this point, while the Rasmussen group had reeled in Kashechkin and hit the top of the climb six and a half minutes back.

Passing under the 25 kilometre to go banner, the three leaders had half a minute on the chasing group, which included Vinokourov, Kohl, Garate, Zubeldia and Cobo. Menchov had dropped back to wait for the 25 strong Rasmussen group, giving his team-mates a hand. At this point they were still 7’30” back.

The leaders hit the bottom of the first category Col de Peyresourde, starting the nine kilometre, 7.8 percent climb together. The finish was just 20.5 kilometres away and they knew that the mountain would play a vital role in determining the eventual stage winner.

As they road up, the climb got steeper and Kirchen and Arroyo dropped Tschopp just under the 20 kilometre to go banner. Kohl had attacked from the chase group but Vinokourov got across to him, followed by Cobo and Garate. He then put in a big attack but the latter two got back to him, as did Zubeldia. However the Kazakh went again soon afterwards and bridged up to the two leaders.

Fighting out the finale

With 17 kilometres to go Vinokourov attacked those up front, dropping Kirchen. The Astana man couldn’t hold the gap, and so Cobo, Arroyo, Zubeldia and then Kirchen came back together.

Shortly before that, Popovych had attacked the yellow jersey group, opening up a decent lead. He stayed clear for several kilometres but was eventually absorbed and then dropped when the rapidly-shrinking Rasmussen group accelerated.

Halfway up the climb, Vino was firing off multiple attacks. He was trying to bust the other riders wide open with multiple attacks, while Kirchen just tried to hang tough. Zubeldia went with approximately four kilometres left and then Vinokourov countered to finally break the elastic. He rode strongly from there to the summit, with Zubeldia and Cobo chasing together before the former pushed on ahead. Kirchen got back up just before the top but by then Vino had built would prove to be a crucial lead.

At the same time further down the mountain, Contador attacked hard and drew Rasmussen clear. The other GC contenders were immediately distanced. The Spaniard kicked a second and then a third time, and the last of these efforts put Rasmussen into serious difficulty. Contador managed to get clear but the determined Dane was still in control of the situation, clawing his way back up.

Contador went two more times and, on the last of these, was unfortunate enough to be slowed by a gaggle of press motors and the Mavic neutral support car. However, while these accelerations were really hurting the maillot jaune, Rasmussen was able to gradually get back on terms each time. Just before the summit the duo caught Hincapie, while Evans and the remains of the chasers including Leipheimer, Sastre and Boogerd were 40" back.

Vino bombed the descent down towards Loudenvielle. Behind, Zubeldia, Cobo and Kirchen had joined up and were chasing 50" behind. The remains of the break were further back, and then came the Contador- Hincapie-Rasmussen trio. The two Discovery Channel riders were trying to work over the maillot jaune but he was grimly hanging on.

On the final rise 2km from the finish, Contador attacked Rasmussen again, but he just couldn't crack the chicken. There was no stopping Vino and he hit the line to take his second stage win of the race.

The tough Kazakh had been on the attack all day and won a hard fought comeback victory in Loudenvielle, averaging 36.15 kilometres per hour. Kirchen beat Zubeldia in the sprint for second, 50" back, while Cobo was fourth at 58".

Behind the first wave of chasers, Arroyo held on to finish fifth at 3'20", while Kohl and Vande Velde were sixth and seventh at 4'25". It was an excellent result for the American from Lemont, Illinois.

Ludo Turpin (Ag2r Prévoyance) chugged in at 5'15", with Contador then finishing ahead of Rasmussen, 5'30" behind Vino. Big George Hincapie and his Captain America jersey was 11th at 5'45", while Cadel Evans sprinted in ahead of Kloden, Leipheimer, Sastre and the rest of the former group Maillot Jaune at 6'28", the Aussie losing another minute to Rasmussen today.

Discovery Channel's Popovych & Predictor's Chris Horner came home at 7', while CSC's Franck Schleck finshed at 7'20".

More than ever, after today's stage 15 Rabobank's maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen is in control of the 2007 Tour De France. However the upstart maillot blanc Alberto Contador of Discovery Channel is making a great race of it. He is currently second on GC, just 2'38" behind.

Aussie Cadel Evans is still in third place, but is now four minutes back. Discovery Channel's Levi Leipheimer is sitting 4th at 5'25" and is poised for his best-ever Tour De France finish as the American looks to be getting stronger day by day.

Astana's Andreas Kloden is on the outside looking in in fifth, just 9" behind Leipheimer, but is still a long way from the podium.

The Tour's top 10 is rounded out by Sastre (CSC) at 6'46", Zubeldia at 7’27”, Kashechkin at 7’54”, Kirchen at 8’24” and Astarloza at 9’21. Zubeldia and Kirchen were the day’s big movers, improving from 13th and 14th respectively to seventh and ninth overall. Kashechkin dropped one place to eighth.

Rest Day: Tuesday 24 July / Pau

Stage 16: Wednesday 25 July Orthez Gourette-Col d'Aubisque / 218,5 km

After a well-earned final rest day in Pau at the 2007 Tour De France, the race continues with five more stages before the finish line in Paris. They are not yet done with the Pyrenees, or rather, the Pyrenees are not yet done with them.

Stage 16 has four difficult climbs on the program, including the hors categorie Port de Larrau, a steep 14,5 km monster that leads the Tour for a short visit into Spain, then a finish atop the hors categorie Col d’Aubisque. This stage will be the last chance for riders who are looking to move up the ladder on GC; watch out for a huge turnout of Basque fans to support their orange clad Euskaltel-Euskadi riders.

Contador will have to go on the attack early to try and break the Rabobank hegemony at this years Tour De France. Although he did have a little trouble covering Contador's fantastic attacks on the Peyresourde Monday, yellow jersey Rasmussen and his Rabobank squad should be able to contain the Discovery Channel onslaught which is coming on Wednesday's Stage 16.

Km 79: Port de Larrau: 14.7 km climb @ 8.1 % grade / Beyond Category (Spain)
Km 93: Alto Laza - 3.5km climb @ 6.8 % grade / 3rd Cat. (Spain)
Km 131: Col de la Pierre-Saint-Martin: 14.2 km climb @ 5.2 % grade / 1st Cat.
Km 180.5: Col de Marie-Blanque: 9.3 km climb @ 7.4 % grade / 1st Cat.
Km 218.5: Col d'Aubisque: 16.7 km climb @ 7 % grade / Beyond Category

Km 36: Mauleon-Licharrre

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