ALBI, France -- At the Tour de France, timing is everything.
Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, dogged by new doping accusations,
turned in the time trial of his life Saturday to keep the race
leader's yellow jersey heading into three mountain stages, his
He needed the all-out effort after Alexandre Vinokourov powered
to the day's best ride, showing that he's feeling much better after
crashing and injuring his knees a week ago.
The Kazakh rider, baring his teeth, outclassed rivals as he
finished the 13th stage in 1 hour, 6 minutes, 34 seconds in the
33.6-mile race against the clock in and around Albi.
"Now I think I can attack in the mountains with the legs I
have," said Vinokourov, who jumped to ninth place and is 5:10
behind Rasmussen. He entered the day 8:05 behind Rasmussen in 19th
It was an impressive turnaround for the one-time favorite as the
pivotal final week of racing begins. Saturday's shakeout could be a
harbinger for how riders will fare on the more important time trial -- a 34.5-mile 19th stage from Cognac to Angouleme on the day before
the July 29 finish in Paris.
"For us, the Tour starts today," Vinokourov said. "It was
important to me to show myself and to the other riders who had
counted me out that it was too early for the general classification
to be decided.
"It's not at all over."
But the mountains are where Rasmussen has dominated. He was the
Tour's best climber for the last two years and first donned yellow
this year after winning the second stage in the Alps last Sunday.
Rasmussen surprised himself with his strong ride in the time
trial, which isn't his strength, but had several explanations.
Roads began to dry out at the end of the stage, in which riders
set off one by one in reverse order. Rasmussen, as overall leader,
started last and benefited from tips his Rabobank teammates gave
about the dangerous patches on the winding, hilly course.
And "obviously, the yellow jersey is a very big motivation
factor," he said.
Rasmussen didn't have answers for the firestorm of questions he
has faced about his removal from Denmark's national team after
missing surprise anti-doping checks before the Tour, and new claims
that he asked an acquaintance to carry doping materials into Italy
five years ago.
Doping rumors -- compounded by recent admissions, investigations
and scandals -- are a constant in cycling. Floyd Landis, who won the
Tour last year, is awaiting an arbitration panel's verdict on a
proposed two-year ban after testing positive for synthetic
Rasmussen refused to answer questions about allegations by a
former amateur mountain bike racer from Boulder, Colo., that the
Dane had tried to trick him into carrying doping materials into
Italy in March 2002.
"I only answer questions regarding the race," he said,
explaining how he remained motivated despite the controversy. "I
decided to put the last couple of days behind me."
He'll need to stay motivated to hold off the new set of rivals
he faces after Saturday's stage.
Cadel Evans is in second place 1 minute behind Rasmussen. The
well-rounded Aussie rider finished second in the stage, 1:14 behind
Vinokourov. Discovery Channel rider Alberto Contador of Spain moved
into third overall, 2:31 behind.
Alejandro Valverde had begun the day 2:35 back in second, and
fellow Spaniard Iban Mayo had been third, 2:39 behind. They
struggled and each fell to 5:28 back.
"I am surprised to keep the jersey with that much of an
advantage," Rasmussen said. "I guess this was the time-trial of
my life. ... I was in better condition than some of my
He also avoided the pitfalls. Time-trial ace Andreas Kloeden and
his Astana teammate Andrey Kashechkin were among many riders who
crashed on the rain-slickened roads. Kloeden still managed to place
third in the stage 1:39 back, crossing the finish line with road
rash on his hip.
The three-week race returns to the mountains Sunday, with the
122.4-mile 14th stage from Mazamet to Plateau-de-Beille -- the first
of three punishing rides in the Pyrenees.