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Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) emerged as the strongest and most aggressive climbers in the Tour de France on Sunday, gaining time on all their rivals on the tough uphill finish to Plateau de Beille.

Each kilometre of the steep 15.9km of the climb was like a bloody boxing match with Rasmussen and Contador landing blows that gradually hurt their overall rivals and left them struggling.

Contyador and Rasmussen eventually went clear together five kilometres from the finish and began their own fight for the stage victory. They caught and past Antonio Colom (Astana), the last survivor of the early break, and then sprinted for the stage win and the precious 20 second time bonus. Rasmussen went early but Contador came round him to win the first stage for Spain in this year’s Tour de France.

Juan Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) finished third at 37 seconds, Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) was fourth at 40 seconds, Carlos Sastre (CSC) was fifth at 53 seconds and Andreas Kloden (Astana) was sixth at 1-52. Cadel Evans (Predictor) initially tried to stay with Contador and Rasmussen but paid a huge price, finishing seventh, alos 1-52 behind. Everybody else was spread all over the slopes of the climb to the finish, with Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) the biggest loser. After his time trial win on Saturday he had claimed he was bsck in overall contention but finished 81st, 28-50 down. He dropped out of the overall standings like a stone and is now 30th at 34-12.

Thanks to the time gained on Evans, Contador moved up to second place overall, 2-23 behind Rasmussen. Evans is now third at 3-04, with the other big names filling the top ten but spread over ten minutes. Even with two other major mountain stages in the Pyrenees on Monday and Wednesday and a final time trial next Saturday, the Tour de France now seems a battle between the Rasmussen, Contador and perhaps Cadel Evans.

Living up to his nickname of the chicken, Rasumssen again refused to answer questions about the serious doping accusations made against him.

“I’d go crazy if I had to deal with everything. With a week to go, I’m trying to stay focused on my cycling,” he said, when it was pointed out that according to a survey 78% of French people no longer beleive the yellow jersey.

After winning his first stage in the Tour de France, Contador was a little more open but also refused to go into detail about his thoughts on missing last year?s Tour de France because he was initially implicated in Operacion Puerto. He also claimed he did not have time or energy to think about the doping accusation made against Rasmussen.

However he is convinced he has a chance of winning the Tour de France: “This is a important result for me but there are still three hard stages to go and it?ll be a difficult final week. I could have a bad day but so could Rasmussen,? he said.

?He?s very strong but I gained time on Evans which is good and if I have a good day I?ll attack Rasmussen and try and get the yellow jersey.?

The first mountain stage in the Pyrenees saw riders finish more than 30 minutes down on Contador but David Millar, Charly Wegelius, Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas all finished, with Wegelius an impressive 30th on the stage at 7-35.

On moday they face another tough day with the 196km 15th stage from Foix to Loudenvielle. The stage includes the Hors category Port de Bales and the Peyresourde before the descent to the finish.

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TOUR DE FRANCE 2007: STAGE 14 RESULTS
1 Alberto Contador (Spa) Discovery Channel 197km in 5.25.48
2 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank
3 Mauricio Soler (Col) Barloworld 0.37
4 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Discovery Channel 0.40
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC 0.53
6 Andreas Kloden (Ger) Astana 1.52
7 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor same time
8 Antonio Colom (Spa) Astana 2.23
9 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana
10 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Discovery Channel 3.06
British
30 Charles Wegelius (GBr) Liquigas 7.35
66 David Millar (GBr) Saunier Duval 18.30
137 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Barloworld 34.52
147 Bradley Wiggins (Gbr) Cofidis s.t

OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 14
1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank
2 Alberto Contador (Spa) Discovery Channel 2.23
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor 3.04
4 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Discovery Channel 4.25
5 Andreas Kloden (Ger) Astana 4.38
6 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC 5.50
7 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana 6.58
8 Mikel Astarloza (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 8.25
9 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne 9.45
10 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Discovery Channel 10.55
British
67 Charles Wegelius (GBr) Liquigas 1.20.27
77 David Millar (GBr) Saunier Duval 1.29.21
149 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Cofidis 2.12.06
162 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Barloworld 2.28.06

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TOUR DE FRANCE 2007: GUIDE
Route guide
Complete start list
Guide to all 21 teams
Tour 2007 videos
ITV and Eurosport Tour TV listings