ALBI, France (AP) – 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 specialty.
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 place.
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. 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 testosterone.
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 competitors.”
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.