Alps trim cyclists in title hunt

Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark speeds in the descend of the Iseran pass during the 9th stage of the 94th Tour de France cycling race between Val d'Isere and Briancon, French Alps, Tuesday, July 17, 2007. (AP Photo/Alessandro Trovatii)

BRIANCON, France -- A favorite to win the Tour de France, Alexandre Vinokourov's title hopes are fading fast.

The injured cyclist fell more than eight minutes behind leader Michael Rasmussen in Tuesday's ninth stage, the last of three stages in the Alps.

Juan Mauricio Soler became the latest Colombian to show climbing prowess at the Tour, attacking in the last of three major ascents and holding off a pack of chasers to win the stage.

Soler, a 24-year-old Colombian competing in his first Tour for the newcomer Barloworld team, finished the 99.1-mile ride from Val d'Isere to Briancon in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 24 seconds.

"I'm really happy ... Winning a stage is a dream," Soler said.

The pack sped down the Iseran pass Tuesday during the ninth stage of the Tour de France between Val d'Isere and Briancon in the French Alps. (BA CZERWINSKI ~ Associated Press)

Rasmussen, a Dane who took home the polka-dot jersey of the Tour's best climber the last two years, leads a thinning pack of hopefuls after the Alps proved too much for some.

Rasmussen has led since he took the lead in the second Alpine stage Sunday. His main rivals did little during Tuesday's climbs.

Only a few managed to make up some ground. Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who placed second after Soler, gained 16 seconds against Rasmussen and is second overall -- 2 minutes, 35 seconds back.

Valverde, who crashed out of last year's Tour with a broken collarbone, leads a strong Caisse d'Epargne team and has shaped up as perhaps the biggest threat to the 33-year-old Dane's ambitions.

Iban Mayo, a strong Spanish climber, was third overall and 2:39 behind, crossing the finish line along with Rasmussen.

Vinokourov was aching in both knees after a crash Thursday. The Astana team leader briefly dropped back to get an anti-inflammatory pill from the race doctor during Tuesday's stage.

Vinokourov, who was third in the 2003 Tour and won last year's Tour of Spain, lost another 2:42 to Rasmussen and now trails by 8:05 overall in 21st place.

Riders face two time trials -- frequently where fortunes change and Vinokourov is strong -- and three grueling days in the Pyrenees early next week that could shape the outcome.

Other title aspirants also lost ground. Russia's Denis Menchov lost 2:49 to Rasmussen and was 7:10 back, and 2006 runner-up Oscar Pereiro was 2:42 behind, trailing by 6:36 overall.

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