Vinokourov fading away


BRIANCON, France (AP) – A favorite to win the Tour de France, Alexandre Vinokourov’s title hopes are fading fast.

The injured cyclist fell more than eight minutes behind leader Michael Rasmussen in Tuesday’s ninth stage, the last of three stages in the Alps.

Juan Mauricio Soler became the latest Colombian to show climbing prowess at the Tour, attacking in the last of three major ascents and holding off a pack of chasers to win the stage. Soler, a 24-year-old Colombian competing in his first Tour for the newcomer Barloworld team, finished the 99.1-mile ride from Val d’Isere to Briancon in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 24 seconds.

“I’m really happy … Winning a stage is a dream,” Soler said.

Rasmussen, a Dane who took home the polka-dot jersey of the Tour’s best climber the last two years, leads a thinning pack of hopefuls after the Alps proved too much for some.

His ambitions are growing to hold on to the leader’s yellow jersey, which he took in the second Alpine stage Sunday. His main rivals did little during Tuesday’s climbs.

Only a few managed to make up some ground. Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who placed second after Soler, gained 16 seconds against Rasmussen and is second overall – 2 minutes, 35 seconds back.

Valverde, who crashed out of last year’s Tour with a broken collarbone, leads a strong Caisse d’Epargne team and is shaping up as perhaps the biggest threat to the 33-year-old Dane’s ambitions.

Iban Mayo, a strong Spanish climber, was third overall and is 2:39 behind, crossing the finish line along with Rasmussen.

Vinokourov is aching in both knees after a crash on Thursday. The Astana team leader briefly dropped back to get an anti-inflammatory pill from the race doctor during Tuesday’s stage.

“I did what I could. The team worked well again … and tried to reduce the gap,” Vinokourov said on France-2 television.

“It was another horrible day for me,” he said before breaking into tears.

Vinokourov, who was third in the 2003 Tour and won last year’s Tour of Spain, lost another 2:42 to Rasmussen and now trails by 8:05 overall in 21st place. Riders face two time trials – frequently where fortunes change and Vinokourov is strong – and three grueling days in the Pyrenees early next week that could shape the outcome.

Other title aspirants also lost ground. Russia’s Denis Menchov lost 2:49 to Rasmussen and is now 7:10 back, and 2006 runner-up Oscar Pereiro was 2:42 behind, and trails by 6:36 overall. Among the expected contenders within striking distance, Cadel Evans of Australia is fourth, 2:41 back; Frenchman Christophe Moreau sits sixth, 3:18 behind; Carlos Sastre of Spain trails by 3:39 in seventh, and American Levi Leipheimer is ninth, 3:53 off the leader’s pace.

Astana’s biggest hope may now be Andreas Kloeden of Germany, one of the world’s best long time trial specialists who was runner-up to Lance Armstrong in 2004.

He kept close to Rasmussen, and is eighth overall – 3:50 back.

“For the team, the most important thing was not to loose contact with the yellow jersey group,” Astana sporting manager Mario Kummer said. “The Tour isn’t over yet.”

Rasmussen will be in yellow again Wednesday for a mostly flat Stage 10, a 142.6-mile trek from Tallard to the Mediterranean city of Marseille. It is the second-longest stage this year.

Rasmussen’s Rabobank team was one of three – along with Italy’s Lampre-Fondital and Dutch squad Rabobank – that experienced unannounced blood tests by the International Cycling Union early Tuesday before the stage. None of the 25 riders tested were ruled unfit to continue.

Riders trudged up the Iseran and Galibier passes Tuesday, ascents among the toughest in cycling. The stage ended with a long descent into Briancon, but a slight uphill patch at the end.

There were more spills. Marcus Burghardt of Germany struck a spectator’s dog that ambled onto the road. His front wheel buckled and he was thrown off his bicycle. He finished the stage. The dog also seemed OK.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy came out to support the competitors Tuesday, riding along with Tour director Christian Prudhomme in a car that followed Soler’s breakaway performance.

“I had to buckle up in the back seat, he was going downhill at 49 mph,” Sarkozy told France-2.