Who will teams ride for? Only the Pyrenees will tell

Updated: July 21, 2007, 5:03 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

ALBI, France -- Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team, left for road kill in the Tour de France a few days ago, are proving hard to slay.

Vinokourov's time trial win Saturday on a wet, hilly course in south-central France put the enigmatic Kazakh rider back within reach of the Tour de France podium. He is ninth overall, a little more than five minutes off the lead, and given his penchant for guerilla-style surprise attacks in the mountains, he is viewed warily by the rest of the peloton.

Michael Rasmussen
Bas Czerwinski/AP PhotoMichael Rasmussen survived Saturday's time trial and held a 1:00 lead in the overall standings.

"Apparently, he's back again," said Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel. He might as well have evoked the image of a grinning, axe-wielding Jack Nicholson hacking his way through a previously closed door.

Vinokourov's countryman Andrey Kashechkin and Germany's Andreas Kloden finished within two minutes of him despite separate crashes Saturday. The Astana riders are now clustered in the top 10 like three robin's eggs -- the color of their distinctive jerseys -- catapulting a team that looked depleted by a Stage 2 pile-up into the driver's seat as the Tour enters its toughest stretch in the Pyrenees.

Meanwhile, Tour leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark did more than survive a stage most people expected to drive a stake through his climber's heart. He stayed upright, passed the rider who started three minutes ahead of him and turned in perhaps the most respectable time trial of his one-sided career to retain his place atop the field.

Discovery Channel's hand remained strong as Spain's Alberto Contador and leader and Montana native Levi Leipheimer overcame slow starts Saturday. Both gained time on Rasmussen and sit in third and fifth place, respectively.

What does it all add up to? Both Astana and Discovery will have to pick -- sooner rather than later -- which rider is their strongest card, and play him. Two other obvious contenders, Rasmussen and Australia's versatile Cadel Evans, have no internal competition, but also lack the deep bench of support riders Astana and Discovery can send up the hill with their leaders. Evans came in 1:14 behind Vinokourov and is now in second place, a mere 60 seconds short of Rasmussen.

Vinokourov's performance Saturday might have been entirely expected if he hadn't crashed early in the Tour and looked gimpy and worn out for most of the first half of the race. One of his knees is still wrapped.

He captured the final time trial of the Tour of Spain last year to seal his overall victory there, although that course was half the distance of Saturday's winding 33.5-mile ride. Vinokourov was third in the time trial event at the 2006 world championships and also won a 25-mile time trial in last month's Dauphine Libere, a Tour tune-up in the Alps.

Kloden has a solid track record in Tour time trials that has twice helped him to the podium, but he, too, was hurt early in the race and is riding with a cracked tailbone. He took yet another spill Saturday and rolled past the finish line grimacing and bloodied, with a gash on his left quadriceps and scrapes on his hip.

Kashechkin, Vinokourov's 27-year-old heir apparent, jumped from the French Credit Agricole team to follow Vino to the ill-fated Liberty Seguros squad last year. Both Kazakh riders found themselves out of the 2006 Tour when several of their teammates -- including Contador -- were excluded from the race because of alleged links with the Operacion Puerto doping investigation in Spain.

Neither Vinokourov nor Kashechkin were implicated in the scandal and its central figure, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, stated that Contador was not one of his clients (a statement he significantly refused to make about other riders). "Kash," as he is commonly referred to, recouped later that summer by taking third place in the same Tour of Spain won by Vinokourov.

One of the most interesting debates about cycling tactics is whether it's better for a team to have one strong leader or a couple of different options. Does it cause hard feelings? Does it confuse the troops?

Astana team manager Marc Biver depicted his team's situation much the way a political party strategist might talk about a trio of charismatic presidential candidates. He called it "a privilege" to have both Vinokourov and Kloden in the running, and carefully described Kashechkin as "a great talent for the future ... Vinokourov is our current leader."

"The course will decide," Biver said, which we all knew anyway. Then he said something a little surprising, given Discovery's double whammy: "Cadel Evans is the biggest threat."

Bruyneel said he was wowed by Contador's time trial ride but emphasized that he expects an "aggressive" ride from Leipheimer in the Pyrenees, where he had perhaps the most assertive Tour stage finish of his career there last year. "He says he's ready," Bruyneel said.

One thing several of the riders high in the standings share is that they have had to answer recently to charges they have not cooperated with anti-doping authorities who require knowledge of their whereabouts.

An official from the UCI, cycling's international governing body, implied this spring that Astana's penchant for training in dark, unmarked clothing might have something to do with not wanting to be found. This inevitably led the media to dub the team "Men in Black."

Biver vehemently denied the allegations at a pre-Tour press conference in London. No fire has erupted from all this smoke as it did with Rasmussen, who was besieged Friday by revelations he had received several warnings for failing to file proper paperwork with the Danish cycling federation and the UCI.

Here's a fearless prediction for the next few days. No one will have any problem finding the Astana guys. Just look for the flying wedge of robin's egg blue.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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