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Stage 14: And Then There Were Two

Stage 14
Mazamet-Plateau de Beille
197 kilometers/122.4 miles
Stage: Alberto Contador (Discovery)
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune. If so, the two riders at the top of the heap are Michael Rasmussen and Alberto Contador.

Both were eased to the top by strong team efforts. On the first climb, the Port de Pailheres, David Millar and Saunier Duval teammates climbed at a blistering high pace. Yet for all that, Evan Mayo, for whom Millar assassinated himself, dropped out near the top of the Port, a high mountain pass with gradients of 12% near the top of the climb.

But the rock and roll really started during the ascent of the Montee D’Hauteville, 16 kilometers that reach into the sky to a mountain-top finish.

There were about ten riders left halfway up, after Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, running his last tour, 22-year-old Thomas Dekker, and Discovery’s elderly George Hincapie and rising star Popovych took turns at the front. Popovych rode an especially powerful race up the Montee D-Hauteville to keep Contador and Leipheimer in the top five. Leading the way up some of the road’s steepest stretches, he reminded me of the days when Floyd Landis was Lance Armstrong’s super-domestique, leaving riders panting in his wake.

Soon the main group was down to eight riders after Andreas Kloden found himself in a spot of bother about the 10k mark. The Versus cameras were inside the Discovery Channel car, and we got to see manager Johan Bryneel tell Popovych to attack, which put announcer Phil Leggitt into a spot of bother about how TV cameras shouldn’t be inside cars that have televisions in them.

On and on, up and up they went, until finally everybody fell away, even Cadel Evans, the most quiet and steady rider all tour, and Leipheimer, who ran a strong race but just couldn’t keep up with the leaders.

So it was Contador and Rasmussen, both working together as they left the others behind and pulled back the two breakaway riders left ahead. They chatted a lot on the way up about putting time on Evans, and Contador got the stage win while Rasmussen got precious minutes on Evans and the other contenders.

A serious casualty was Alexandre Vinokourov, who brought himself back among the contenders with a brave and lightning-fast time trial Saturday. Today his body finally feel victim to a hard two weeks riding with injuries, and Vino fell back on the penultimate climb and lost half an hour on the leaders by the end of the day, enough to put him out of contention.

It was as exciting a race as I have seen, and we finally got to see who had the right stuff and who didn’t. Right now the only two who have it are in first and second place. Everyone else has the task of attacking the two best riders on the high passes for two more days. Do these guys ever get tired?


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