Without the Kazakh rider and Astana, the field was reduced to 151 riders on Wednesday. The team's withdrawal also meant two of the top 10 riders were out -- Andreas Kloeden of Germany, who had been fifth, and Kazakh Andrey Kashechkin, who had been eighth. Wednesday's stage featured four huge climbs, culminating with an uphill finish so tough it does not even have a rating.
Rasmussen was aiming to get through the stage without losing time to his main rivals, so he can embark on the last major hurdle -- a time trial on Saturday -- in a commanding position. Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion after he won last Saturday's time trial. On Monday, Vinokourov also won stage 15 -- a tough climb in the Pyrenees. Those performances marked a remarkable recovery from a crash that had ruined the first week of his race.
Vinokourov told the French sports daily L'Equipe for Wednesday's edition that he had not cheated.
"It's a mistake. I never doped, that's not the way I see my profession," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "I think it's a mistake in part due to my crash. I have spoken to the team doctors who had a hypothesis that there was an enormous amount of blood in my thighs, which could have led to my positive test."
Vinokourov claimed to be the victim of a "provocation." "It's been going on for months and today they're managing to demolish me," he said. "The setting up of our team made a lot of people jealous and now we're paying the price. It's a shame to leave the Tour this way, but I don't want to waste time in proving my innocence."
------ Associated Press Writers John Leicester in Paris and Jean-Luc Courthial in Gourette contributed to this report.