A mighty maillot jaune holds - Vino returns with stage win

Sun shines on GC Favourites in 'Albi la Rouge'

Drawing on courage, stubbornness and the oft-mentioned boost of wearing the maillot jaune, Michael Rasmussen tore along the roads east of 'Albi la Rouge' to save his yellow jersey. The Rabobank Dane was expected by most to slip out of the lead but instead he held off a firing Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) by exactly a minute to hold on at the top. Alexander Vinokourov ruled the day and painfully proved to his rivals that he should not yet be counted out of the overall battle by covering the 42-kilometre parcours in a time of 1:06'34", followed by Evans and Andreas Klöden (Astana).

"I am happy with my performance," said Vinokourov after his run. "I am finding my legs again. Now I want to attack in the Pyrénées. I want to thank everyone in and around the team that encouraged me to get through the Alps."

The 33 year-old Kazakh of Team Astana smashed all the time checks of the day to prove that his crash in stage five to Autun has not finished him off as a race overall contender. He ousted early pacesetter Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) with times of 23'09" at kilometre 18, 44'00" at 35.6, 50'07" at 38.5 and 1:00'38" at 49.

Is the patron back? "Yes. You can say that, some people have already written me off." Vinokourov, winner of the 2006 Vuelta a España and third in the 2003 Tour, lost over three minutes in stage nine to Briançon. "I took revenge for Briançon." He gave out a warning to his rivals with the Pyrénées looming, "I still have a few days left."

Rasmussen is a known non-specialist in the time trials and many felt his time at the top would end on the roads to Albi. However he pulled out a defiant ride, finishing with the eleventh best time and only conceding 2'55 to Vinokourov.

"Obviously the yellow jersey is a big motivation factor," the clearly pleased leader 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 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."

Like Rasmussen, Evans rode better and better as the stage wore on. He was sixth at the 18-kilometre check but moved up to second at the 38.5 kilometre check to threaten for the stage and for the overall. Perhaps the finish bodes well for the 30 year-old Aussie who avoided the spotlight of stage winner and allows for Rabobank to control the first stage in the Pyrénées, tomorrow.

"So far, so good. It was a good course for me. I had time checks from my team-mates," explained Evans to Jean-François Quénet of Cyclingnews. "I was going at half-speed compared to what they wanted at every corner. I understand that many people crashed.

"I'm happy with the time that made on Klöden. I am surprised by Vino. I am surprised by Rasmussen and Valverde, but not for the same reasons. I did not think about the GC. I only wanted to have a good time trial. It is a good sign. The best is yet to come."

Evans is prepared for the following mountain stages. "During the Pyrénées, it may be tricky with Discovery's two riders and Astana with three riders. At this point, I am happy with how it is. I know there are steeper climbs in the Pyrénées. Contador has good team-mates; I don't know what will happen. I was interested to see how Contador goes because had done a good prologue."

Astana's other two men, Klöden and Andrey Kashechkin, rode amazingly well considering that they each crashed during their crono runs. The German took a right-hander a little over the pace and slid out. He jumped back on his BMC machine but had to dismount for the team mechanic to adjust. Despite this, he finished third with a time of 1:08'13", five seconds faster than 'Kash,' in fourth at 1:08'18".

The Londoner Bradley Wiggins, out of the start house at 11 o'clock, handled the moistened roads with agility and hammered in with an early best time of 1:08'48". Many pundits figured that the time would stick as the roads became even worse with the heavy rains; however, the clouds cleared and the final men over the finish line in the city known for artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec could see their shadows.

Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer finished sixth, seventh and ninth. The time by Spaniard Contador moved him into third overall, 1'31" behind Evans, while the American's time lessened the chance of a win in Paris, but still is in reach of the podium. Kid Contador, maintaining the maillot blanc of best young rider, will aim for tomorrow's Pyrenean stage to Plateau de Beille .

"It is better to go slower today to be cautious, and then tomorrow I will be back," Kid Contador noted before the stage. If it was "cautious" today then he has a good chance of changing his blanc for jaune at the end of tomorrow's 197-kilometre romp.

Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) finished eighth while Spain's Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) rounded out the top ten with a ride that moved him into eighth overall.

Rasmussen finished the day in 11th but saved his lead with an amazing time trial for a riders consiered as a 'pure climber.' "When I saw Valverde in front of me that was a great motivation," he noted after the stage. "Starting in the yellow jersey was an extream motivation. Today was better than St-Etienne [in 2005 with his multiple crashes]; I rode very carefully on the descents and I avoided any risks."

How it unfolded

After two weeks of racing, the 54 kilometre race of truth in Albi was an important step towards determining the eventual winner of the 2007 Tour De France. Starting in the birthplace of French artist Toulouse-Lautrec, stage 13 was a twisty, tricky out-and-back time test with the first 20 kilometres a long, gradual uphill false flat, then downhill and rolling until the 34 kilometres point.

Then followed a four kilometre power climb at a 3.4 % grade up the sinuous category 4 Côte de la Bauzie, a slick, difficult descent, and a return to Albi on the D999 road to the finish. Although many thought the high heat would play a major factor, Mother Nature decided otherwise. A cold front with raid and wind blew into the Departement du Tarn this morning, bringing cool temperatures, a gusty northwest wind and intermittent rain showers.

The bad weather was much to the liking of Cofidis man Bradley Wiggins, as the big British rider is used to such conditions back home. Wiggins was off early, starting 19th at 11 am sharp. The Cofidis man was fastest at all time checks to honour the British time trialling tradition, powered home fastest in 1 hour 8'48".

Wiggins lead was threatened when prologue winner and World TT champion Fabian Cancellara got off to a fast start and was second fastest at the first time check in Villefranche-d'Albigeois after 18km, 29 seconds behind the big Brit. However Cancellara crashed on the tricky descent to Ambialet some four kilometres later and limped home 6'31" slower than Big Wig.

Rider after rider threw it down on the wet roads around Albi to try and unseat the Cofidis competitor but to no avail. The final 20 riders on GC started their bid at 15.21when Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych got underway. The rain had stopped around mid-afternoon but the roads were still wet and skies overcast as the cold front moved east.

Just after Popo was Vino, the Astana tough man who was hoping to time trial himself back into contention at the 2007 Tour De France.

With some generous whiskers and plenty of chin cabbage, French champ Christophe Moreau had nothing to lose and everything to win back as he started with huge cheers from the French crowd. While the long, lanky Ag2r rider was on the course, Astana's Vinokourov powered through the first time check in Villefranche-d'Albigeois in 23'09", the new fast time at that point. This was ten seconds quicker than Wiggins.

Clad in his Russian TT champs jersey, Discovery Channel's Gusev was also on a good ride and caught his three minute man Jens Voigt. He was sitting about 4th place, but 10 kilometres from the finish his front wheel slipped out on a slippery traffic circle and he crashed hard. He lost 30 seconds but managed to came back to provisional third, 42" slower than Wiggins.

Moreau had an extremely slow start, passing through the first time check in a surprising 54th place. He had already conceded 2'55" to Vino. The Kazakh rider remained in pole position at the second time check after 35 kilometres, and was powering home to Albi. The third check came atop the Côte de la Bauzie and he came past here in 50'07", 1'19" ahead of Wiggins. The rain had finally stopped but the roads were still wet.

Leipheimer then came through the first time check 1'31" behind Vino in 20th, well slower than expected, while his teammate Contador was up on schedule. He was just six seconds behind Levi and on his way to a good ride.

Vino's Astana teammate Klöden was now on the course and the classy German hit the first time check in the 3rd fastest time, 34" back. Back at the finish in Albi, it was Discovery Channel's Popovych who then finished second fastest, but right behind him was the hard charging Kazakh hoard in the person of Vinokourov, who had a fantastic time of 1h06'35". This was an average of 48.7 kilometres per hour and was a full 2'14" faster than Wiggo.

Back out on the course, Cadel Evans was next past the first time check and he was clearly off to a good start. He was sixth, 57 seconds back, while ahead of him Klöden slipped on a wet patch on the descent after 22 kilometres and crashed hard on his right hip. The German quickly got up and only lost 20".

Valverde was having a bad day at the office as he came through the first check 2'18" down and had already lost time on GC. In contrast, maillot jaune Rasmussen passed through the same check in a respectable 29th place, 1'42" behind Vino. He had lost 45 seconds to his closest GC rival Evans.

Levi continued his disappointing ride, being only 12th fastest at the top of the Côte de la Bauzie. He was by now 2'35" behind Vino's time.

Klöden had recovered from his crash and was coming up fast from behind on the Discovery Channel rider and passed the top third fastest, 1'19" behind Vino. Next across the summit of Côte de la Bauzie was Predictor's Cadel Evans, second quickest.

He was 1'01" behind Vino, but well ahead of Klöden and was faster up the 3.4 kilometres climb than the Kazakh.

Moreau had a poor race today, finally finishing 125th, 9'26" behind. Astana's Kasheckhin had a super finish and caught his three minute man Astarloza, posting the second fastest time at that point. He would end up fourth on the stage.

Leipheimer finished in 1h09'13", 23 seconds slower than teammate Popovych's sixth place time. Contador was seventh, while Klöden had slowed over the last kilometers but still came home in third place.

Surprises from top two overall:

The next rider across the summit of Côte de la Bauzie was Valverde, who was having a horrible ride. He passed the top in 54'44", already losing 4'30 to Vino. Just behind him was Ramussen, who many expected to lose a lot of time today. However Rasmussen was going well and was surprisingly fast over the ascent. He wasn't losing enough time to Evans, his old rival from mountain bike racing, to lose his maillot jaune. In order to keep the Tour lead, the Dane needed to concede less than 1'10" over the next 15.5 kilometres and his riding was inspired today.

Contador came home to complete his superb ride, while next to finish was fighting Aussie Cadel Evans. He was second on the stage, beating Klöden and taking back 1'39" from Maillot Jaune. Caisse d'Epargne's Valverde had started second overall but was the day's major flop, losing almost five minutes to Evans and dropping nine places on GC to eleventh.

But it was the surprising Rasmussen, embattled the last few days over missed doping tests, who fought back hard today and finished the stage in 11th place. He even caught his three minute man Valverde and left the Spaniard rider, nicknamed "the unbeaten", well beaten on the streets of Albi. The Caisse d'Epargne rider was a dismal 47th on the stage, losing 6'08" to Vinokourov.

As predicted, Saturday's Stage 13 time test has markedly changed the overall picture at the 2007 Tour De France. Maillot Jaune Rasmussen has ridden well, far better than expected, to maintain his supremacy. He's still in yellow, even if he is only there by one minute from Cadel Evans, now second overall.

After the team's earlier troubles, Astana has re-emerged as a powerful force at the Tour De France, thanks to Vinokourov's win today and the excellent performances of his teammates Klöden (3rd) & Kasheckhin (4th). Both Astana riders have solidified their GC positions of fourth and sixth; Klodi is just 3'37" from the Maillot Jaune, while Vino's powerful win has catapulted him from 20th to 9th, 5'10" behind. Expect to hear a lot more from Astana as the Pyrenees begin tomorrow.

Evans is in a difficult spot, as he has to drop super-climber Rasmussen to take over the Maillot Jaune. His Predictor team isn't that strong and may have difficulty supporting the 30 year old Aussie should he do so. So he may just sit back, watch the action and wait for the right moment to make his move.

Now sitting pretty in 3rd is 24 year old Alberto Contador, and he must be the new leader of Discovery Channel if the US squad has any chance at Tour De France glory. Finishing 7th today, just behind his teammate Popovych and 21" ahead of supposed Discovery Channel team leader Leipheimer (9th), the emerging Spanish talent has now become the go-to guy for the squad.

Leipheimer, sitting 5th on GC, will have to be satisfied with a support role for here on in at Le Tour 2007. Contador now has a real chance to keep his Maillot Blanc of Best Young Rider until Paris, and perhaps even an outside chance of making the podium should his form continue to improve.

CSC's Carlos Sastre has ridden himself back into the picture with a decent time trial. He is now sitting 7th, 4'45" behind Rasmussen, and while the Spanish climber has been quiet up until now, he must go on the offensive in the next few mountain stages to have a chance at the podium.

His CSC teammate Franck Schleck was slow today, losing 4'48" to Vino and over three minutes to the other GC contenders. He will have to focus on helping Sastre move up on GC. Valverde's Tour hopes went down the tubes today in Albi and the classy rider from Murcia, Spain will have to hope for a stage win to salvage his race.

Two T-Mobile riders, solid Kim Kirchen and 24 year old Linus Gerdemann are having respectable Tours and are now sitting 10th and 13th overall.

Stage 14: Sunday 22 July Mazamet-Plateau de Beille / 197 km

Saturday's first stage in the Pyrenees heads south from Mazamet, the hometown of Laurent Jalabert and climbs out of town via the 2nd Cat. 9 kilometres Côte de Saint-Sarraille. It then travels across the Montagne Noir massif and the flats of Carcassonne, Limoux and Quillan before ascending the steep 17 kilometres of the hors categorie Port de Pailhères. The final ascent finishes atop the steep 16 kilometre Plateau de Beille, rated the same.

Coming one day after the tough Stage 13 time trial, stage 14 will definitively separate the pretenders from the contenders as regards the win in the 2007 Tour De France. Astana will try to infiltrate an early break and maybe send Kashechkin on the long, steep Port de Pailhères. But the real action will happen on the final ascent of the Plateau de Beille.

This is a tough 15.9 kilometres climb at a 7.9 % grade where Rasmussen will try to gain more time with a decisive attack.

Look for hazy, cloudy weather on Sunday that will shroud the Pyrenees in their characteristic mists but even so, Rasmussen will be easy to spot. He'll be the one off the front in the yellow jersey on the way to Plateau de Beille.

kilometre 9: Côte de Saint-Sarraille: 9.0 kilometres climb @ 5.3 % grade / 2nd Cat.
kilometre 146.5: Port de Pailhères: 16.8 kilometres climb @ 7.2 % / Beyond Category
kilometre 197: Plateau de Beille: 15.9 kilometres climb @ 7.9 % / Beyond Category

kilometre 46.5: Carcassone kilometres 105.5: Campagne-Sur-Aude

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