Today was Stage 16 of the Tour de France and as the last day in the mountains, it lived up the hype as the race leaders dueled to the very end. This stage ran from Orthez to Gourette and up the Col d’Aubisque. It covered more than 135 miles, and ended with a long, beyond category climb, designed to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
The long climbs on this stage challenged riders all day, and an early break away was reeled back in by a chase group that contained all the racers at the top of the standings, including Michael Rasmussen, of Denmark, who wears the Yellow Jersey, Alberto Contador of Spain, Australia’s Cadel Evans, and Levi Leipheimer from the United States. All four men pushed themselves to the limit, but in the end Rasmussen proved to tough to over come, and he crossed the finish line alone to claim the stage victory. Leipheimer, who staged a dramatic comeback, claimed second 26 seconds back, while Contador rode in third, 35 seconds behind the leader.
Rasmussen now leaves the Pyrenees in Yellow, with two flat, fast stages to come. Thursday and Friday will favor the sprinters, who will try to wrack up points towards the Green Jersey, currently held by Belgian Tom Boonen. Saturday’s individual time trial will decide this year’s winner, as Rasmussen has struggled in that discipline in the past, while his closest competitors, Contador, Evans, and Leipheimer are all strong time trialists. With the mountains now behind us, it does appear that Rasmussen will give up his Polka Dot Jersey to Soler Hernandez, of Columbia, who will reign as the new King of the Mountain. Herandez is racing in his first Tour and has put on quite a show in the mountains. Especially for a guy who hadn’t ridden a bike until the age of 17.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a day on the Tour without yet more controversy. Word has come out that Italian Cristian Moreni of the Team Cofidis has tested positive for elevated levels of Testosterone, adding another black eye to the event which has had it’s fair share once again this year. There was also a bit of a protest from some of the riders at the start of the race, as about half of them elected to not start the race as scheduled. Instead, they hung back as a silent protest against the recent, and continued doping scandals. This caused a 13 minute delay to the proceedings. Today’s stage also wandered near the disputed Basque region of Northern Spain, and a small explosive device was detonated along side the course, with reports of Basque separatists being responsible. Just another crazy, wacky day on Le Tour I suppose.
The next two days will probably be rather boring. The leaders will hang on each other’s wheel and not allow anyone to get too far out in front. Saturday should prove great to watch however, as the top four duke it out. Honestly though, I think Contador is the only one who has a chance to catch Rasmussen unless he has another terrible time trial like he did two years ago.
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