LOUDENVIELLE-LE LOURON, France -- Feeling increasing pressure on the course and off it, Michael Rasmussen has refused to crack and his hold on the Tour de France lead is looking increasingly solid with five days of racing left.
The wiry Dane reeled in repeated breakaway attempts by Alberto Contador, his last major challenger for the yellow jersey, in yesterday's punishing ride along five climbs in the Pyrenees.
Onetime race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov won the 15th stage along the Spanish border, his second stage victory this year, continuing a pattern of toggling between a bad showing one day with an exceptional performance the next.
Rasmussen has been a paragon of consistency.
He has needed to be.
The Danish cycling union said last week it had kicked him off the national team because he had missed drug tests before the Tour began. A day later, a former amateur mountain bike racer claimed that Rasmussen had tricked him into carrying a human blood substitute to Italy five years ago.
Yesterday, the head of the International Cycling Union expressed his doubts about Rasmussen.
"With all this speculation around him it would be better if somebody else were to win," UCI chief Pat McQuaid said. "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 said McQuaid's opposition was "new to me. I have all the intention to try to win this race."
French customs officials stopped and searched vehicles of Rasmussen's Rabobank team and those of at least three others -- Astana, Discovery Channel, and Team CSC -- to check for suspicious products. The officials declined to comment. The teams said the checks were routine.
Vinokourov broke away near the finish of the 122-mile run from Foix to Loudenvielle-Le Louron, for his fifth career Tour stage win. He finished in 5 hours 34 minutes 28 seconds.
Rasmussen crossed the line 5:31 back, alongside Contador. The 24-year-old Spaniard with Discovery Channel is second overall, 2:23 back.