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Crystal Ball Gazing

CASTELSARRASIN, July 26 -- Alberto Contador and his Discovery Channel team seized control of the Tour de France today with a stunning escape that put the 24-year-old Spaniard in the yellow jersey, 35 seconds ahead of Denmark's Michael Rasmussen.

On a day where little attacking was expected, Contador escaped with teammate Yaroslav Popovych, eventually connecting with Vladimir Gusev and Egoi Martinez, who dropped back from a group which had escaped at the start of the stage. The four Discovery Channel riders then separated themselves from a stunned Rabobank team and Rasmussen, its race leader over the past ten days, to win back three minutes and snatch the overall lead.

Contador, Rasmussen and the other overall leaders seemed uninterested in chasing the breakaway of 15 riders, none of whom represented a threat to the order of the race, and the main peloton averaged 32 kph over the first two hours. Rabobank had four riders controlling the front of the field and blocking for Rasmussen, known as "the chicken" for his long, thin legs, grating voice, and flap of red skin that hangs from his jaw. Approaching a feed zone 10km outside Solomiac, Contador and Popovych suddenly bolted away, setting off a panicked chase by the Rabobank riders. Popovych practically sprinted for four kilometers before establishing a 35 second lead.

At this point, as Popovych began to fade, Contador made the juncture to Gusev and Martinez, who had immediately stopped pedaling upon hearing of their approaching teammates. Gusev, a noted time triallist, set a ferocious pace, trading pulls with Martinez and eventually Contador, as Rabobank riders fought to close the gap. However, after three days of all-out work in the mountains, the Rabobank riders eventually tired, leaving Rasmussen himself to lead the charge. By the finish here, he had conceded three minutes and his overall lead.

"We didn't know it could work, but it seemed worth a shot," said Discovery Channel manager Johan Bruyneel. "We tried attacking Rasmussen in the mountains, but he's too comfortable there, so we thought maybe these are roads where he isn't as strong."

The Dane was crushed at the finish. "I knew it could be a hard day because of the crosswinds," said Rasmussen, "but I thought my teammates could get their asses over the flat stages, even after they rode on the front for over a week. It's too bad. But I can make up the time in the time trial, I think."

Hey, I can dream. Of course, based on my track record, now that I've said it the opposite is bound to happen. Like, an all-Discovery crash or something.