Rasmussen looking, sounding like Armstrong as he cements Tour de France lead

Overall Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, left, listens to his teammate Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands during a training session of the Rabobank team outside Tignes, French Alps, Monday, July 16, 2007, as riders of the 94th Tour de F Bas Czerwinski, The Associated Press


Overall Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, left, listens to his teammate Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands during a training session of the Rabobank team outside Tignes, French Alps, Monday, July 16, 2007, as riders of the 94th Tour de F Bas Czerwinski, The Associated Press

By Jamey Keaten

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France – Michael Rasmussen is starting to resemble Lance Armstrong, and it’s not just because the Dane is wearing the yellow jersey as leader of the Tour de France.

Rasmussen extended his lead against all of his top rivals except Spain’s Alberto Contador in the 14th stage on Sunday, advancing his bid to follow a path blazed by the seven-time Tour champion.

“Rasmussen has done an incredible thing today,” said Johan Bruyneel, sports director of Discovery Channel – Armstrong’s former team that now includes Contador. “The Tour de France is not easy to control.”

The diminutive Dane, who is riding in his fourth Tour, won the first of his two polka-dot jerseys given to the Tour’s best climber in 2005 – when the Texan last wore yellow home.

Rasmussen is showing that he, like Armstrong, knows how to control the race. And just as Armstrong had to continually defend himself against accusations of doping, Rasmussen finds himself under the cloud that has dogged cycling and kept Contador out of last year’s Tour. He missed the race when his former team – Astana – was disqualified on the eve of the start due to a Spanish doping probe that implicated five of its riders.

On Sunday, Contador and Rasmussen dusted the pack and battled one-on-one to the finish of the 122-mile ride from Mazamet to Plateau de Beille, the first of three demanding stages in the Pyrenees.

The two-man show demonstrated how climbers have an edge in the 94th edition of cycling’s main event. The next two stages in the Pyrenees are likely to further narrow the field of contenders, and a time trial on the eve of the July 29 finish in Paris could determine the champion.

Contador showed Sunday he can’t be counted out, tapping his chest and pointing skyward as he finished a bike length ahead of Rasmussen for his first stage victory.

Both were given the time of 5 hours, 25 seconds, 48 seconds, but because of bonus seconds awarded for a stage win, Contador gained 8 seconds on Rasmussen and vaulted to second overall, 2:31 back.

Rasmussen, who has won three Tour stages, denied that he had let Contador win, instead crediting the young Spaniard for seizing a better position to edge him out at the renowned uphill finish.

“This is the Tour de France. You don’t give any presents,” Rasmussen said. “The Plateau de Beille is not something you give away. It was a very well-deserved win.”

Armstrong, who won stages here in 2002 and 2004, once spoke just like that.

Coming from behind to edge Andreas Kloeden of Germany in a dazzling sprint finish in Le Grand Bornand in 2004, Armstrong famously quipped: “No gifts this year.”

Rasmussen has said he has never failed a doping test, and has called himself the Tour’s most-tested rider this year. Armstrong often used to say he was “the most tested athlete in the world.”

As part of Tour rules, the bearer of the yellow jersey undergoes a urine test after every stage. Rasmussen first took the overall lead last Sunday – and has held it every day since.

Rasmussen has been hounded by questions since the Danish cycling federation announced Thursday that he had been kicked off the national team because he had failed to notify cycling authorities of his whereabouts for possible surprise anti-doping tests in May and June.

Then on Friday, a former amateur mountain bike racer from Boulder, Colo., accused Rasmussen of trying to trick him into carrying illicit doping materials into Italy five years ago.

The head of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said Sunday that the cycling governing body would meet with Whitney Richards, the former rider who said Rasmussen asked him to carry a pair of cycling shoes in March 2002 to Italy. Richards said he instead found IV bags filled with human blood substitute, which he poured down the drain.

“Any allegations he has would have to be backed up by proof … he’d need witnesses,” UCI President Pat McQuaid said. If not, “the story might go down the drain.”

The accusations are just the latest to plague the sport, which even in France is showing signs of having lost its credibility. A poll published Sunday in the weekly Journal du Dimanche found 78 percent of respondents doubted the honesty of riders who win a Tour stage – or any cycling competition.

The survey of 1,004 people aged 15 or over was conducted Thursday and Friday by the Ifop agency. No margin of error was given.

At news conferences after Tour stages, the word from Rasmussen’s team is now clear: Only questions about “the race.”

Asked how he could remain silent about the controversy amid many fan doubts, Rasmussen said: “I have one more week of hard competition and if I have to deal with everything else, then I go crazy.”

He showed his mettle Sunday. His Rabobank teammates escorted him along the first grueling ascent – the Port de Pailheres – but they lost steam and left him to fend for himself up the final climb.

His yellow jersey partly unzipped, Rasmussen kept close watch on his five nearby rivals – Contador, Cadel Evans, Juan Mauricio Soler, Levi Leipheimer of the United States and Carlos Sastre of Spain.

The riders tested each other with short bursts to see who would be the first to crack. Rasmussen and Contador broke away when the other riders finally began to struggle.

The big loser of the day was Evans, who had begun the stage 1 minute back of Rasmussen in second place. The Australian fell behind in the last 3 miles to drop to third, 3:04 back.

While Evans’ chances of winning diminished, one-time Tour favorite Alexandre Vinokourov’s are all but gone. The Astana rider had appeared to return to contention by winning Saturday’s time trial, but is out of the title quest after finishing 28:50 behind Rasmussen. He trails by 34:12, in 30th place.

Leipheimer finished 40 seconds back, and now sits fourth overall, 4:29 off the pace. Kloeden, who was runner-up to Armstrong in 2004, is fifth, 4:38 back.

Rasmussen’s performance Sunday was all the more impressive after he went all out Saturday to hold his own in the time trial – a discipline he hasn’t trained for and is not his specialty.

“He’s the big favorite now,” said Discovery’s Bruyneel, “but there are two mountain stages left.”