LOUDENVIELLE-LE LOURON, France -- Feeling increasing
pressure on the course and off it, Michael Rasmussen has refused to
crack and his hold on the Tour de France lead is looking
increasingly solid with five days of racing left.
The wiry Dane reeled in repeated breakaway attempts by Alberto
Contador, his last major challenger for the yellow jersey, in
Monday's punishing ride along five climbs in the Pyrenees.
One-time race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov won the 15th stage
along the Spanish border, his second stage victory this year,
continuing a pattern of toggling between a bad showing one day with
an exceptional performance the next.
Rasmussen has been a paragon of consistency.
He has needed to be.
The Danish cycling union said last week it had kicked him off
the national team because he had missed drug tests before the Tour
began. A day later, a former amateur mountain bike racer claimed
that Rasmussen had tricked him into carrying a human blood
substitute to Italy five years ago.
Monday, the head of cycling's governing body, the International
Cycling Union, joined in with his doubts about Rasmussen.
"With all this speculation around him it would be better if
somebody else were to win," UCI chief Pat McQuaid told The
Associated Press on Monday. "The last thing this sport needs is
more speculation about doping."
McQuaid added, however, that the Danish rider has "broken no
rules, so from that point of view ... you have to give him the
benefit of the doubt."
Rasmussen said McQuaid's opposition was "new to me. I have all
the intention to try to win this race."
Patrice Clerc, the head of Tour organizer Amaury Sports
Organization, was quoted Tuesday in French daily Le Figaro as
saying that he "regrets" the Dane's presence.
"I guess it's normal ... they're shooting at No. 1," Rasmussen
said, alluding to the intense pressure that seven-time Tour winner
Lance Armstrong faced over doping claims. "I'm sure he was under
tremendous pressure and under fire for seven years in a row, and
still he managed to win the race seven times."
Even Rasmussen's team got an inspection from French authorities
Customs officials stopped and searched vehicles of Rasmussen's
Rabobank team and those of at least three others -- Astana,
Discovery Channel and Team CSC -- to check for suspicious products.
The officials declined to comment. The teams said the checks were
Erik Breukink, Rabobank's sports director, said: "It's no
problem for us. They can do a bus check every day -- we're
concentrating on the race."
But the instances pointed to how the cloud of doping that has
already dealt huge blows to the sport isn't dissipating at a time
when cycling officials have publicly sought to crack down.
Many riders want to focus on the race, which is looking more and
more like Rasmussen's to lose with a last big day in the mountains
and a pivotal time trial as his main hurdles before the finish
Sunday in Paris.
Rasmussen said the young Contador was giving him heat up the
Peyresourde Pass -- the last of five ascents Monday, including the
Port de Bales, one of the toughest climbs in cycling.
"He probably has the best acceleration of anybody on the
climbs, and I was certainly under pressure, but luckily enough I
managed to get back every time," Rasmussen said.
Vinokourov broke away near the finish of the 122-mile run from
Foix to Loudenvielle-Le Louron, for his fifth career Tour stage
win. It was his second this Tour, after winning Saturday's time
The Kazakh rider, who injured his knees in a crash in the fifth
stage, dropped out of contention for good on the first Pyrenees
ride on Sunday, when he lost more than 28 minutes to the race
"I wasn't motivated yesterday ... but the team told me I could
still win stages. I gave my all," the Astana team leader said
after his win Monday in 5 hours, 34 minutes, 28 seconds.
Rasmussen crossed the line 5:31 back, alongside Contador. The
24-year-old Spaniard with Discovery Channel is second overall, 2:23
back, and seemingly the only man able to keep pace.
Cadel Evans of Australia, in third overall, U.S. rider Levi
Leipheimer in fourth and fifth-placed German Andreas Kloeden each
finished 56 seconds after Rasmussen. Evans is 4:00 back; Leipheimer
is 5:25 behind and Kloeden trails by 5:34.
Riders get a rest day Tuesday, before the grueling climax to the
Pyrenees stages the 135.8-mile ride Wednesday from Orthez to
Gourette-Col d'Aubisque, featuring five climbs and an uphill