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Archive for Monday, July 16, 2007

Where’s Lance, Landis to save U.S.?

Americans lagging, Denmark’s Rasmussen thriving at Tour de France

July 16, 2007

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— 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.

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 21â2 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 stage.

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 test.

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. "There's still two more weeks of racing and I still have 110 kilometers of time-trialing to negotiate."

The Danish rider won his third stage, clocking 4 hours, 49 minutes, 40 seconds. Spain's Iban Mayo was second, 2:47 behind, followed by his compatriot Alejandro Valverde, 3:12 back. 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.

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