TIGNES, France -- No more Lance. No more Landis. And their
American successors are off to a lackluster start this year,
jeopardizing an eight-year winning streak by U.S. riders at the
Tour de France.
Denmark's Michael Rasmussen won the eighth Tour stage Sunday to
grab the overall leader's yellow jersey that was won by Tour
champion Lance Armstrong from 1999-05 and Floyd Landis last year.
Sunday's 102.5-mile trek from Le Grand-Bornand to Tignes was the
second of three Alpine stages, and many contenders just want to
stay within striking distance of the leader.
Riders get a rest day Monday before the last Alpine course, a
99.1-mile stage from the Val d'Isere ski station to Briancon,
featuring the Iseran and Galibier passes -- ascents that are among
the hardest in the race.
Levi Leipheimer is shaping up as the biggest American threat in
a competitive field. The Discovery Channel team leader placed sixth
in the 2005 Tour, ninth in 2004 and 13th last year.
Many riders expect the final shakeout in the three-week race to
take shape in three tough stages in the Pyrenees mountains at the
start of the third week and a time-trial a day before the July 29
finish in Paris.
"Levi's been planning to have his best form for the Pyrenees,"
Discovery spokesman P.J. Rabice said. "Today, he said he stayed
with the group he needed to."
After eight stages in 2006, three Americans -- Landis, David
Zabriskie and George Hincapie -- were within 2½ minutes of the lead.
At the same time a year earlier, five of the top 14 in the
standings were U.S. riders.
This year, Leipheimer is 13th overall, 3:53 back of Rasmussen.
Among the other top Americans, veteran Chris Horner of the
Predictor-Lotto team is 25th, 6:29 behind, and Discovery's George
Hincapie trails 45th, 20:19 back.
Hincapie, a former lieutenant of Armstrong who briefly
entertained title hopes at last year's Tour, finished 17:26 back of
Rasmussen on Sunday.
"This year, George is trying for stage wins," Rabice said.
The American streak of wins is already in doubt. An arbitration
panel is considering whether Landis should keep his title after
testing positive last year for synthetic testosterone in the 17th
Tour organizers no longer consider Landis the 2006 champion, and
while they don't have final say, his name has an asterisk next to
it in the race guidebook noting his win lies in the balance. He
says he didn't cheat and has criticized the French lab behind the
Doping revelations like the one regarding Landis, along with
several admissions of cheating by present and former riders over
the last year have tarnished the sport's image.
Rasmussen, the Tour's best climber for the past two years, left
open the prospect that he could challenge for the Tour title this
year, which could favor mountain specialists.
"I'm a climber, and a pure climber," Rasmussen said. "If I
have to go all the way, and take the yellow jersey all the way to
Paris, I will have to climb faster than I have ever done in my
"There's still two more weeks of racing and I still have 110
kilometers of time-trialing to negotiate. And I think I've proven
in the past that it's not exactly my specialty."
The Danish rider won his third stage in four Tour appearances,
clocking 4 hours, 49 minutes, 40 seconds. Spain's Iban Mayo was
second, 2:47 behind, followed by his compatriot Alejandro Valverde,
Rasmussen took his first yellow jersey from German rider Linus
Gerdemann, who trailed several minutes behind. Rasmussen holds a
43-second lead over Gerdemann and a 2:39 gap over Mayo.
Many overall race favorites stayed close, but pre-race favorite
Alexandre Vinokourov, nursing injuries to both knees, lost time to
his main rivals and sat 5:23 back of Rasmussen in 22nd place.
"The team was incredible today," Vinokourov said of his Astana
teammates, which helped escort him to prevent him from losing too
much time. "We tried to limit the damage ... I'm holding onto
Among other likely contenders, Valverde is fourth overall, 2:51
behind Rasmussen. Vinokourov's teammate Andrey Kashechkin is 2:52
back, Cadel Evans of Australia trails by 2:53 and Christophe Moreau
of France is 3:06 off the leader's pace.
It was a bad day for Gerdemann's T-Mobile team -- just a day
after he took the yellow jersey. The team's Australian leader,
Michael Rogers, injured his shoulder in a crash and dropped out, as
did British teammate Mark Cavendish, who crashed twice in earlier
Another T-Mobile rider, Patrik Sinkewitz, hit a fan while riding
to his hotel after finishing the stage. The 78-year-old man was in
serious condition at a hospital, and the German rider sustained
facial injuries, race organizers said.
Australian rider Stuart O'Grady of Team CSC, who also crashed
Sunday, injured his back, quit the race, and was taken to a
hospital for tests.