Vinokourov keeps up pressure on Armstrong

The T-Mobile rider took off in a group of seven on the lower slopes of the Madeleine, the first of two monster climbs on the 173-kilometre (107.5-mile) stage. Shedding his companions one by one, Vinokourov had the honour of being the first rider to reach the summit of the Galibier climb, at 2,645 metres above sea level.

Caught by the Colombian Santiago Botero shortly afterwards on the ensuing 40km plunge down to Briancon, Vinokourov only faltered slightly when a timing device on his bike broke off its support and began wiggling its way down the frame towards the back wheel. Rather than slow Vinokourov's 80kph [50mph] descent, a team mechanic simply leaned out of the back window of a following team car and chopped off the offending instrumen. Vinokourov won the final sprint against Botero by several bike lengths.

Vinokourov explained that the aim of his attack and ensuing stage win was "to give back some morale to the team". "I attacked so early because I knew Lance's squad would lay down too strong a pace on the Galibier for anybody to get away."

The 31-year-old's prediction proved accurate. Escorted by no less than four team riders at the front of a 20-strong lead group, Armstrong was never troubled by the slightest challenge to his authority on the 18km climb. The one attack, by the Dane Mickael Rasmussen at the summit was merely to mop up a few more points for his lead in the King of the Mountains competition.

If Rasmussen, the only rider remaining at less than a minute to Armstrong overall, has appeared to succumb to the American's regime, Vinokourov, now 4min 47sec back, has yet to rule out winning the Tour.

"You never know what will happen in the Pyrenees." he said. "I might yet go for the yellow. I still have faith."

The Tour's last major Alpine stage proved too much for the German Jens Voigt, who held the yellow jersey for one day. The CSC rider finished the stage 41sec outside the maximum timeand was eliminated.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'

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