CASTELSARRASIN, France – Reeling the withdrawal of race leader Michael Rasmussen amid several doping scandals, riders completed the 18th stage of the Tour de France Friday with the finish line on the Champs Elysees drawing ever nearer.
Sandy Casar crashed after hitting a spectator's dog but won the 18th stage before home fans. Alberto Contador of Spain kept the overall lead.
Casar scraped his hip in the crash and went on to capture a Tour stage for the first time. He prevailed in a sprint among four cyclists who broke away from the main pack during the 131-mile ride from Cahors to Angouleme.
The 29-year-old Frenchman pumped his right fist as he crossed the line in 5 hours, 13 minutes, 31 seconds. He was followed by Axel Merckx of Belgium and Laurent Lefevre of France.
"Finally! It's been awhile that I've been waiting for this," Casar said. "I almost dropped out after the fall — I didn't see it coming."
Tom Boonen of Belgium cemented his hold on the green jersey given to the race's best sprinter by leading the pack across the finish line, 8:34 after Casar.
With the race heading into Saturday's crucial stage — a 35-mile individual time trial from Cognac to Angouleme — Cadel Evans of Australia gained three seconds against Contador in the overall standings as the pack split near the finish.
He trails Contador by 1:50 with two stages left until the finish Sunday along the Champs- Elysees. U.S. cyclist Levi Leipheimer is third, 2:49 back.
"This yellow jersey is very important. It's important that I have it tonight," said Contador, who rides with the Discovery Channel team. "Tomorrow is the most difficult day of my career as an athlete. In this time trial, everything can change, my entire life can change."
The Tour has been reeling from doping scandals, highlighted by the withdrawal of race leader Michael Rasmussen. The Dane was kicked out of the race by his Rabobank team Wednesday.
Denmark's cycling federation said July 19 it ousted Rasmussen for missing doping tests in June. He called it an oversight and claimed he was in Mexico, where his wife is from, in June. Former rider Davide Cassani said he had seen Rasmussen in Italy.
Rasmussen left a pack of dispirited riders heading toward Paris, burdened by the latest jolt to the sport. On Tuesday, crowd-pleasing Kazakh cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov was ejected for testing positive for a blood transfusion after Saturday's stage.
Midway through Wednesday's stage it was announced Cristian Moreni had tested positive for testosterone. The Italian rider didn't deny it, and he was carted off by police.
"Too much, too much," said Germany's Markus Fothen, who rides for the Gerolsteiner team. "Every day it's new news. Moreni yesterday, Rasmussen. I'm so tired."