Vinokourov wins 15th stage of Tour |

Vinokourov wins 15th stage of Tour

Jamey Keaten
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 15th stage of the 94th Tour de France cycling race between Foix and Loudenvielle le Louron, Pyrenees mountains, Monday, July 23, 2007. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

LOUDENVIELLE-LE LOURON, France ” Alexandre Vinokourov was upstaged even in victory.

The Kazakh rider won the 15th stage of the Tour de France on Monday with a gutsy performance that was overshadowed by the challenges facing overall leader Michael Rasmussen.

The Dane weathered several attacks from main rival Alberto Contador to defend the yellow jersey in what is becoming a two-man race, but took an unexpected hit when the head of cycling’s governing body said the doping speculation surrounding Rasmussen would make it bad for the sport if he won the Tour.

“With all this speculation around him it would be better if somebody else were to win,” UCI chief Pat McQuaid told The Associated Press on Monday. “The last thing this sport needs is more speculation about doping.”

McQuaid added, however, that the Danish rider has “broken no rules, so from that point of view … you have to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Rasmussen has been dogged by the doping cloud that hangs over the sport. He was dropped from Denmark’s national team last week for failing to tell anti-doping officials of his whereabouts for drug testing before the race began.

He missed two drug tests by the Danish anti-doping agency in May and June, and failed to respond to two warnings from the International Cycling Union since April 2006. A third infraction with either the UCI or the Danish agency would be considered equivalent to a positive test and lead to a ban.

Vinokourov, a former race favorite whose faint hopes of a Tour victory vanished after he lost nearly 29 minutes to Rasmussen on Sunday, crossed the finish line alone in 5 hours, 34 minutes, 28 seconds.

“I wasn’t motivated yesterday … but the team told me I could still win stages. I gave my all,” said Vinokourov, who has struggled to contend for the overall lead since injuring his knees in the fifth stage.

The Astana team leader broke away near the end of the 122-mile run along the Spanish border from Foix to Loudenvielle-Le Louron for his fifth career Tour stage win. It was his second this year, after winning Saturday’s time trial.

Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg was second, closely followed by Haimar Zubeldia of Spain in third. They both trailed Vinokourov by 51 seconds. Rasmussen and Contador were 5:31 back.

Rasmussen, of the Rabobank team, retained a 2:23 lead over Discovery Channel’s Contador despite repeated attacks from the Spaniard in the last of five climbs.

It appears to be Rasmussen’s race to lose ” with the hardest of the three Pyrenees stages ahead Wednesday, and a final time trial scheduled for the eve of Sunday’s finish in Paris. Tuesday is a rest day.

Cadel Evans of Australia, in third overall, U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer in fourth and fifth-placed German Andreas Kloeden each finished 56 seconds after Rasmussen. Evans is 4:00 back; Leipheimer is 5:25 behind and Kloeden trails by 5:34.

French customs officials stopped and searched vehicles of at least four Tour teams Monday, including those of Astana, Rabobank, Discovery Channel and CSC, checking for any suspicious products.

“They looked on the bus, the stuff of the riders,” Astana spokeswoman Corinne Druey said. “They didn’t find anything. It was just a normal customs check.”

CSC spokesman Brian Nygaard said the officials “asked to see the papers and the contents of the bus and what we had in our fridge. When you carry the things to the Tour for the riders, the vitamins, you need paperwork.”

Customs officials declined comment. The search revived memories of 1998, when authorities found a stash of performance enhancing drugs in a Festina team car, plunging the Tour into crisis and nearly derailing the event.

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