ANGOULEME, France (AP) – Sandy Casar crashed after hitting a spectator’s dog but won the 18th stage of the Tour de France before home fans Friday. Alberto Contador of Spain kept the overall lead as the doping-stained race neared its weekend finish in Paris.
Casar scraped his hip in the crash and went on to capture a Tour stage for the first time. He prevailed in a sprint among four cyclists who broke away from the main pack during the 131-mile ride from Cahors to Angouleme.
The 29-year-old Frenchman pumped his right fist as he crossed the line in 5 hours, 13 minutes, 31 seconds. He was followed by Axel Merckx of Belgium and Laurent Lefevre of France.
“Finally! It’s been awhile that I’ve been waiting for this,” Casar said. “I almost dropped out after the fall – I didn’t see it coming.”
Tom Boonen of Belgium cemented his hold on the green jersey given to the race’s best sprinter by leading the pack across the finish line, 8:34 after Casar.
With the race heading into Saturday’s crucial stage – a 35-mile individual time trial from Cognac to Angouleme – Cadel Evans of Australia gained three seconds against Contador in the overall standings as the pack split near the finish.
He trails Contador by 1:50 with two stages left until the finish Sunday along the Champs- Elysees. U.S. cyclist Levi Leipheimer is third, 2:49 back.
“This yellow jersey is very important. It’s important that I have it tonight,” said Contador, who rides for Discovery Channel. “Tomorrow is the most difficult day of my career as an athlete. In this time trial, everything can change, my entire life can change.”
After Casar hit a dog, Evans rode into a female spectator at the finish line. Evans stayed on his bike and the fan was unhurt.
“I’m all right,” Evans said. “The last two days have been good recovery from the Pyrenees.”
Evans beat Contador by 1:04 in last Saturday’s time trial, which was won by the now-expelled Alexandre Vinokourov.
“We will know all the answers out on the road tomorrow,” said Evans, who had finished second to Vinokourov in Albi. The Tour has been reeling from doping scandals, highlighted by the withdrawal of race leader Michael Rasmussen. The Dane was kicked out of the race by his Rabobank team Wednesday.
Michael Boogerd, Rasmussen’s former teammate at this Tour, finished fourth behind Lefevre. Boogerd had to work to keep up during the final mile. As he panted at the finish line he was bombarded with questions about Rasmussen.
“I am really disappointed that I could not win today, my legs were very good and maybe I was the strongest up the hill, but it wasn’t for me,” said Boogerd, who is racing his last Tour. “Today I don’t want to answer those questions. … Yesterday (Thursday) I answered too many questions about Michael (Rasmussen).”
Merckx, son of the five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx, will also quit racing July 29. He felt his narrow defeat summarized his career – always close to victory but never matching the feats of his father.
“A rider who could go for breakaways like that and could be in the final of a nice stage of the Tour de France but was missing a little bit of top speed to win,” Merckx said, referring to himself. “So many times I’ve finished second or third in my career.”
Denmark’s cycling federation said July 19 it ousted Rasmussen for missing doping tests in June. He called it an oversight and claimed he was in Mexico, where his wife is from, in June. Former rider Davide Cassani said he had seen Rasmussen in Italy.
Rasmussen left a pack of dispirited riders heading toward Paris, burdened by the latest jolt to the sport. On Tuesday, Vinokourov was ejected for testing positive for a blood transfusion after Saturday’s stage. Midway through Wednesday’s stage it was announced Cristian Moreni had tested positive for testosterone. The Italian rider didn’t deny it, and he was carted off by police.
“Too much, too much,” said Germany’s Markus Fothen, who rides for the Gerolsteiner team. “Every day it’s new news. Moreni yesterday, Rasmussen. I’m so tired.”