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Contador takes Stage 14; Rasmussen retains yellow jersey

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France -- Michael Rasmussen is starting
to resemble Lance Armstrong, and it's not just because the Dane is
wearing the yellow jersey as leader of the Tour de France.

Rasmussen extended his lead against all of his top rivals except
Spain's Alberto Contador in the 14th stage on Sunday, advancing his
bid to follow a path blazed by the seven-time Tour champion.

"Rasmussen has done an incredible thing today," said Johan
Bruyneel, sports director of Discovery Channel -- Armstrong's former
team that now includes Contador. "The Tour de France is not easy
to control."

The diminutive Dane, who is riding in his fourth Tour, won the
first of his two polka-dot jerseys given to the Tour's best climber
in 2005 -- when the Texan last wore yellow home.

Rasmussen is showing that he, like Armstrong, knows how to
control the race. And just as Armstrong had to continually defend
himself against accusations of doping, Rasmussen finds himself
under the cloud that has dogged cycling and kept Contador out of
last year's Tour. He missed the race when his former team -- Astana
-- was disqualified on the eve of the start due to a Spanish doping
probe that implicated five of its riders.

On Sunday, Contador and Rasmussen dusted the pack and battled
one-on-one to the finish of the 122-mile ride from Mazamet to
Plateau de Beille, the first of three demanding stages in the
Pyrenees.

The two-man show demonstrated how climbers have an edge in the
94th edition of cycling's main event. The next two stages in the
Pyrenees are likely to further narrow the field of contenders, and
a time trial on the eve of the July 29 finish in Paris could
determine the champion.

Contador showed Sunday he can't be counted out, tapping his
chest and pointing skyward as he finished a bike length ahead of
Rasmussen for his first stage victory.

Both were given the time of 5 hours, 25 seconds, 48 seconds, but
because of bonus seconds awarded for a stage win, Contador gained 8
seconds on Rasmussen and vaulted to second overall, 2:31 back.

Rasmussen, who has won three Tour stages, denied that he had let
Contador win, instead crediting the young Spaniard for seizing a
better position to edge him out at the renowned uphill finish.

"This is the Tour de France. You don't give any presents,"
Rasmussen said. "The Plateau de Beille is not something you give
away. It was a very well-deserved win."

Armstrong, who won stages here in 2002 and 2004, once spoke just
like that.

Coming from behind to edge Andreas Kloeden of Germany in a
dazzling sprint finish in Le Grand Bornand in 2004, Armstrong
famously quipped: "No gifts this year."

Rasmussen has said he has never failed a doping test, and has
called himself the Tour's most-tested rider this year. Armstrong
often used to say he was "the most tested athlete in the world."

As part of Tour rules, the bearer of the yellow jersey undergoes
a urine test after every stage. Rasmussen first took the overall
lead last Sunday -- and has held it every day since.

Rasmussen has been hounded by questions since the Danish cycling
federation announced Thursday that he had been kicked off the
national team because he had failed to notify cycling authorities
of his whereabouts for possible surprise anti-doping tests in May
and June.

Then on Friday, a former amateur mountain bike racer from
Boulder, Colo., accused Rasmussen of trying to trick him into
carrying illicit doping materials into Italy five years ago.

The head of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said Sunday
that the cycling governing body would meet with Whitney Richards,
the former rider who said Rasmussen asked him to carry a pair of
cycling shoes in March 2002 to Italy. Richards said he instead
found IV bags filled with human blood substitute, which he poured
down the drain.

"Any allegations he has would have to be backed up by proof ...
he'd need witnesses," UCI President Pat McQuaid said. If not,
"the story might go down the drain."

The accusations are just the latest to plague the sport, which
even in France is showing signs of having lost its credibility. A
poll published Sunday in the weekly Journal du Dimanche found 78
percent of respondents doubted the honesty of riders who win a Tour
stage -- or any cycling competition.

The survey of 1,004 people aged 15 or over was conducted
Thursday and Friday by the Ifop agency. No margin of error was
given.

At news conferences after Tour stages, the word from Rasmussen's
team is now clear: Only questions about "the race."

Asked how he could remain silent about the controversy amid many
fan doubts, Rasmussen said: "I have one more week of hard
competition and if I have to deal with everything else, then I go
crazy."

He showed his mettle Sunday. His Rabobank teammates escorted him
along the first grueling ascent -- the Port de Pailheres -- but they
lost steam and left him to fend for himself up the final climb.

His yellow jersey partly unzipped, Rasmussen kept close watch on
his five nearby rivals -- Contador, Cadel Evans, Juan Mauricio
Soler, Levi Leipheimer of the United States and Carlos Sastre of
Spain.

The riders tested each other with short bursts to see who would
be the first to crack. Rasmussen and Contador broke away when the
other riders finally began to struggle.

The big loser of the day was Evans, who had begun the stage 1
minute back of Rasmussen in second place. The Australian fell
behind in the last 3 miles to drop to third, 3:04 back.

While Evans' chances of winning diminished, one-time Tour
favorite Alexandre Vinokourov's are all but gone. The Astana rider
had appeared to return to contention by winning Saturday's time
trial, but is out of the title quest after finishing 28:50 behind
Rasmussen. He trails by 34:12, in 30th place.

Leipheimer finished 40 seconds back, and now sits fourth
overall, 4:29 off the pace. Kloeden, who was runner-up to Armstrong
in 2004, is fifth, 4:38 back.

Rasmussen's performance Sunday was all the more impressive after
he went all out Saturday to hold his own in the time trial -- a
discipline he hasn't trained for and is not his specialty.

"He's the big favorite now," said Discovery's Bruyneel, "but
there are two mountain stages left."