Rasmussen conquers Tour de France Alps

The Tour de France rest day could not come soon enough for Alexandre Vinokourov.

With the stitches in his knees still causing him unbearable pain, the Kazakhstan rider could not get anywhere close to Michael Rasmussen and just about managed to keep in touch with the other front-runners during Sunday's eighth stage.

"The rest day will do a lot of good. It's true that it was a very, very hard day for me," Vinokourov said. "But Andreas (Kloeden) supported me. He did an incredible job and we tried to limit the damage."

While Denmark's Rasmussen showed just why he is the two-time holder of the King of the Mountains jersey with a brilliant climb up three straight Category 1 ascents, Vinokourov and his Astana teammate Kloeden won over French fans over with bravery.

Although Rasmussen has the yellow jersey and Vinokourov is 5 minutes, 23 seconds back, the Kazakh rider has not yet given up on challenging for the Tour.

He may be right, seeing as Monday's rest day will give his battered knees a chance to heal and then he'll only have one more Alpine stage to get through Tuesday - albeit the toughest one - before the race resumes on flatter roads far easier on the body.

"I still have hope," Vinokourov said. "The team did a great job and it's not over yet. Yes, it's not easy with my injury, but a lot of people supported me on the side of the road."

Still, the 165-kilometer (102.5-mile) trek from Le Grand-Bornand to Tignes under a sweltering sun left its mark.

Making their way back to the Astana team bus, Vinokourov and Kloeden were the personification of pain.

Kloeden, who has been riding with a hairline fracture of the coccyx since both crashed on Thursday, hunched forward and had to grip both hand rails tightly to even make his way up the bus steps. Vinokourov slowly placed one leg in front of the other as if the steps were even tougher than the hills he'd just climbed.

In stark contrast, Rasmussen breezed through the three Cat. 1 climbs as if he were on a leisurely afternoon cycle.

He attacked on the Cormet de Roselend, strengthened his lead up the Montee d'Hauteville and was too far ahead to be caught by the time he'd reached the Montee de Tignes, crossing the line in Tignes in 4 hours, 49 minutes, 40 seconds.

A tall, thin and wiry rider, Rasmussen has the perfect build for climbing, and he showed that by beating Spain's Iban Mayo to the finish line by 2 minutes, 47 seconds, and Alejandro Valverde by 3:12.

"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 life."

Perhaps not, for if Rasmussen shows the same dominance in the three daunting Pyrenees climbs that start July 22, he may yet open up a big enough gap to compensate for his weakness on time trials. In 2005 he fell twice during a comedic time trial that wiped away his chances of winning, let alone finishing on the podium.

"There's still two more weeks of racing ... and I think I've proven in the past that it's not exactly my specialty," Rasmussen said, recalling his nightmare clock race two years ago.

Although Rasmussen has not practiced his time-trialing, the Rabobank rider remains cautiously optimistic about his chances of winning the Tour.

"This could be the year," Rasmussen said. "The Pyrenees are extremely difficult, but we still have 110 kilometers (68.2 miles) of time-trialing to do, so everything is still wide open."

Rasmussen took his first yellow jersey from German rider Linus Gerdemann, who had the lead after a bold stage win Saturday but finished the stage several minutes behind Rasmussen on Sunday.

Overall, Rasmussen holds a 43-second lead over Gerdemann overall and a 2:39 gap over Mayo.

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 behind.

It was a bad day for Gerdemann's T-Mobile team. 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 stages.

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.

The 33-year-old Vinokourov would do well to get as much rest as possible Monday.

Tuesday's last Alpine course is a 159.5-mile (99.1-mile) slog from the Val d'Isere ski station to Briancon, featuring the Iseran and Galibier passes - ascents that are among the most torturous in the race's fabled history.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova