Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Another Horrible Day for Vinokourov in Stage 9


Stage Nine
Val-d’Isere-Briancon
159 kilometers/98.7 miles
Stage: Mauricio Soler Hernandez (BarloWorld)
Maillot Jaune: Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

There weren’t many clues in the battle for the maillot jaune today. Michael Rasmussen, who left the rabble behind on the final climb Sunday, stayed with the bunch today, keeping the yellow jersey on his skinny shoulders. The only favorite not challenging any longer is Alexandre Vinokourov, who cried after the stage as he explained who a horrible day he had five days after an accident left him with stitches in both knees and his ass. He is more than eight minutes behind, and there is not another day off until Tuesday. Levi Leipheimer told the International Herald Tribune not to count the Kazakh out, but his situation is getting desperate.

One of the things that I was most looking forward to this year was watching the fascinating and mercurial Vinokourov, especially when he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s tour when other Astana riders were implicated in Operation Puerto. We all know that, at 33, this might be his last good chance for a tour victory. But already teammate Andreas Kloden, a contender himself, might have ended his chances for the yellow jersey Sunday by holding back his climb to guide Vino to the finish. Today he was still in obvious pain to even stay as close as he did.

Beyond that, it was an exciting day of racing. Discovery came out of the chute with big plans, as Yaroslav Popovych broke away and was joined by a teammate in a breakaway. This made the rest of the field, especially Rabobank, ride hard to keep up along the flatlands before the big climbs and long descent into Briancon. It was a good strategy that, had it worked perfectly, would have brought team captain Levi Leipheimer into a better overall position.

But the plan didn’t have a contingency for Barloworld’s Mauricio Soler Hernandez, a Colombian who blistered the field by taking off much the same as Rasmussen had on Sunday, with nobody in tow and only the open road in front of him. His ride was good enough to move him into fifth place overall.

Apparently, Columbian riders work in higher altitudes than the other racers. Today’s ride went over two of the tour’s highest passes, the Iseran and the Galibier, and like Rasmussen (and unlike Linus Gerdemann, who didn’t have water for his descent Saturday and was foaming at the mouth) Solar Hernandez didn’t seem to break a sweat as he smoked everybody.

Alejandro Valverde, Cadell Evans, Iban Mayo, Alberto Contador, Rasmussen and Leipheimer all ran strong races, gaining big time on Soler Hernandez on the 20 km downhill race to the finish. Andreas Kloden and Carlos Sastre are in the running.

I am really impressed with Discovery. Young, very strong riders like Popovych, Contador, Egoi Martinez bode well for the future. Three teams were given unannounced blood tests early Tuesday, and all 25 riders passed. Seeing three non-favorite names in the maillot jaune in the first three mountain stages would seem to bode well, too.

I won’t see the entire tenth stage, as real life intrudes and we will spend the evening being entertained by Cirque de Soliel. Back again on Thursday.