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Rasmussen, still a star in Denmark, hopes to get back to the Tour, somehow

2011 Tour of Denmark, Michael Rasmussen
Rasmussen on the start line at the Tour of Denmark last week. Photo: Cor Vos

FREDERIKSBERG, Denmark (VN) — It has indeed been a busy year for Michael Rasmussen. Only nine months ago he still didn’t have a team to race for. Today he co-owns and heads a team that was put together at sprint speed just for him. This week his Christina Watches Onfone team raced the Tour of Denmark — the biggest race so far for the Continental squad — but the team’s ambitions go much higher. The hope is to get a wild card for the Giro d’Italia next year and, eventually, earn a place in the Tour de France.

If it were up to the Danish fans it would be handed to Rasmussen without further ado. Despite his fall from grace after being withdrawn from the 2007 edition of the Tour de France by his then-team Rabobank, the Danish climber has never lost his popularity with the local crowds. That was confirmed once again when on Wednesday he started in the Tour of Denmark with his new team. Being a clever guy who knows that publicity is key to his new team and its ambitions, Rasmussen was quick to say that he was aiming to win the overall. Considering that the Tour of Denmark has virtually no ascents to honor a true climber, it seemed pretty optimistic, but it returned a lot of headlines in the Danish media.

Unfortunately for Rasmussen and other two thirds of the peloton, including three-time winner Jakob Fuglsang, the chance for overall success was lost when he got caught in cross winds on the first stage, losing more than a minute and a half in a race that is usually decided by seconds. Rasmussen was quick to admit that it was his own fault and set his hopes for a stage win on the king’s stage to Vejle, which includes a short, but very steep climb resembling some of the hills in the Tour of Flanders. On the third and last passage of the climb, Rasmussen gave his best to make a difference but had to accept finishing in the small second group 13 seconds behind stage winner Fuglsang.

Michael Rasmussen with Danish watch designer Christina Hembo during a press conference on December 9, 2010. AFP PHOTO Jesper Kristensen/SCANPIX

Another flat stage, a time trial and a finishing flat stage did not help Rasmussen and his team much. And they had to settle for the hill jersey (since there are no mountains in Denmark, there’s no mountain jersey, but instead a hill jersey) won by Michael Reihs to add to their palmares.

After the race, which saw Australian Simon Gerrans from Team Sky as overall victor, Rasmussen took stock of the past week: “Of course I’m not happy with losing 1:34 on the first stage and being dropped from the overall, but it has been a fantastic experience and we’ve received huge support from the first till the last day. Overall we’re pleased.”

But considering that the team is aiming for a start in next years Giro d’Italia — which opens with three stages in Denmark — they have much bigger tasks ahead.

The first and most urgent is to secure financial backing to become a Pro Continental team in the 2012 season. Their current main sponsors Christina Watches London and Onfone have already prolonged their sponsorship. According to Rasmussen they need an additional two million euros to be able to buy riders that will justify even being considered for the Italian stage race. Currently, and with no disrespect to the rest of the riders, Christina Watches Onfone has only two profiles on this year’s roster — Rasmussen and Italian veteran sprinter Angelo Furlan. With the application deadline for a Pro Continental license approaching fast, that seems quite a job. If that works out the next job will be to convince the Giro organisers that they deserve a wild card.

At a recent press conference Rasmussen admitted, however, that it might not work out. “I guess we got a little caught up with the idea,” as he put it.

But if it hadn’t been for one of the aforementioned cycling-interested Danes, this would not even have been a dream. In the summer and fall of 2010 Michael Rasmussen was struggling to find a team following the expiration of his two-year ban for missed whereabouts. That’s when Christina Hembo, designer, entrepreneur and owner of Christina Watches London, and her husband, Claus Hembo, decided to step in and help. Their plan was to secure Rasmussen a place on a ProTour team; they at first became personal sponsors promising to pay his wages.

That instantly put Christina Hembo on the media map, and shortly after she was offered a place in the Danish version of the TV program Dancing with the Stars that already had Michael Rasmussen as a participant. While they were both waltzing on the TV screens, talks were being held with Bjarne Riis to help secure Rasmussen a place on Saxo Bank-SunGard, and it wasn’t until November when that fell through that the idea of starting their own team came about.

2011 Tour of Denmark, stage 2: Michael Rasmussen and Jakon Fuglsang.
Rasmussen with Leopard-Trek's Jakob Fuglsang on stage 2 in Denmark. Photo: Cor Vos

At record speed, plan B was launched and in December 2010 the team Christina Watches Onfone obtained Continental team status. So far Angelo Furlan has been the most successful team member, with four internationally ranked victories. In June Rasmussen booked his first win in the black team jersey when he won the third stage in the 2.2 ranked Tour of Serbia — a race in which the team took four stage wins — and finished second overall. He later put in a good performance in the 2.1-ranked Tour of Brixia, finishing fourth overall after finishing fourth in the king’s stage that ended with a mountaintop finish.

That’s quite a bit away from winning the stage to Col d’Aubisque wearing the yellow jersey in the world’s most prestigious race, and in the past couple of editions of the Tour de France the now-37-year-old Rasmussen has had to settle with being a columnist for a Danish paper. But if all goes to plan he will once again be at “le grand boucle,” by then clearly not as a rider considering his age but most likely as team manager. From the beginning he has intended to have a position in the team once he hangs up his bike, and just days prior to the start of the Tour of Denmark he received 25 percent of the shares in the team as a gift from Christina Hembo. It only goes to prove that it’s worth having fans.

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