“Why did the Chicken cross the road?” questions filtered through the Tour de France press room Thursday following the news that former race leader Michael Rasmussen, whose nickname is “Chicken,” was sent home by his Rabobank team management for lying about his whereabouts prior to the Tour.
Popular answers included “To go to Italy” and “Because he was an hour ahead of the peloton.”
But the reality is that Rasmussen was sent home from the Tour de France because he was exposed as a liar on the sport’s biggest stage.
Lying is nothing new in professional sports. Every athlete who has ever used performance-enhancing drugs has lied at some level by pretending to succeed on natural talent, a masquerade that is the antithesis of sport.
That Rasmussen never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs means that no matter how suspicious his tales may seem, he cannot yet be labeled a doper. His stage win Wednesday, ahead of American Levi Leipheimer on the Col d’Aubisque, will stand.
However, having told the UCI, his team management and the cycling media that he was in Mexico in June when he was actually training in Italy makes him fair game to be labeled a liar — and raises questions about whether he has something to hide about his month of Tour preparation.
Rasmussen quickly found himself the center of some very pointed questioning after assuming the yellow jersey on stage 8. First, he was dropped from the Danish national team after receiving four warnings for missing out-of-competition doping controls over the past 18 months.
Next came accusations first reported on VeloNews.com that Rasmussen had attempted to trick a former amateur cyclist into smuggling bovine hemoglobin from the U.S. into Italy in 2002.
Rasmussen’s attempts to quell the growing controversy — which included bringing a Rabobank team lawyer to his rest-day press conference on Tuesday alongside team manager Theo de Rooy — provided few answers to the chorus of questions.
The attorney’s longwinded opening detailing Rasmussen’s whereabouts — and the occasions of his “written” and “recorded” UCI warnings — proved more effective as smokescreen than explanation, leaving the press corps struggling to follow and the pressroom interpreter at a loss as to where to begin.
At another point during the press conference de Rooy told the press that Rasmussen had been fined for his administrative mistake. Asked by a reporter what the amount of the fine had been, Rasmussen’s response was to immediately look to de Rooy, as if in need of an answer. De Rooy fielded the question, telling the press the team had fined Rasmussen 10,000 euros.
At one point a L’Equipe reporter asked the Tour leader how it felt to know that no one believed his story. His answer was something to the effect of, “I hope what I’ve explained today has clarified everything about my missed tests.” It hadn’t clarified anything at all.
For his part, de Rooy seemed part of the attempt to deflect any investigation, insisting that he stood by his rider and stressing that confidentiality over Rasmussen’s warnings should have been respected.
On Thursday morning, de Rooy was singing a different tune. He announced that the race leader had been sent home from the Tour, and ultimately fired. Rabobank said Rasmussen had been sent home not because he had doped but because he had lied. A former Italian rider turned RAI television commentator, Davide Cassani, had said he’d seen Rasmussen in the Italian Dolomites in June, the same time Rasmussen told the UCI, his team manager, and the cycling media he had been in Mexico.
Rasmussen later disputed Cassani’s claims that he was in Italy, called de Rooy “mad” and said his dismissal was the act of “a desperate man who is at the end of his nerves.”
“I wasn’t in Italy, no way,” Rasmussen told Danish newspaper B.T. “That’s the story of one man [Cassani] who thinks he saw me. But there’s not the slightest proof.”
Rasmussen told the Danish newspaper that there is an entire village in Mexico that can verify he was there in June. That shouldn’t be necessary. If he truly had been in Mexico, producing a simple passport stamp would suffice.
Rasmussen’s expulsion from the race and the Rabobank squad could well mark the end of the 33-year-old’s cycling career. If so, he could become the third rider to have begun this year’s Tour not knowing it would likely be his final race. Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, 33, tested positive after both of his stage wins for homologous blood doping and is awaiting the results of testing on his “B” sample. Cofidis rider Cristian Moreni, 35, tested positive for a synthetic version of the male sex hormone testosterone after stage 11, immediately admitted his guilt and did not ask for a B sample. Both could face minimum two-year suspensions from the UCI’s ProTour, which, given their ages, would make any return to elite-level competition unlikely.
As dramatic as it may have seemed when Moreni ended stage 16 in the back of a police car at the top of the Col d’Aubisque, the Italian’s admission came as a gust of fresh air through the revolving door of Tour departures.
While Moreni was answering police interrogators atop the d’Aubisque, just a few hundred meters away Rasmussen was again answering questions from an increasingly suspicious press. Just a few hours later, Rasmussen went from a double stage winner and soon-to-be crowned Tour champion to a shamed liar who said Thursday he is “broken and destroyed.”
If so, Rasmussen needs to prove that he was where he said he was–that should be quite easy. And if he can’t, it’s a pity he hasn’t been able, like Moreni, to own up to his own path of deceit.