After 10 days in the yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen appeared to have beaten back all challengers in his pursuit of the top spot on the Tour de France’s final podium in Paris this coming Sunday.
On Wednesday, he handily dispatched his nearest challenger – Discovery Channel’s Alberto Contador – winning the Tour’s most difficult stage and adding to his already-formidable lead as the race made its final trip into the mountains.
But Rasmussen was apparently unable to defeat the growing skepticism surrounding his performance and his behavior over the past few months. On Wednesday evening, when the Dane should have been celebrating his all-but-certain victory, his own team withdrew him from the Tour and fired him.
“He broke team rules,” explained Rabobank spokesman Jacob Bergsma, who said team officials believed Rasmussen had lied to them regarding his whereabouts in June of this year, when UCI and Danish Cycling Federation officials had been unable to locate the rider for out-of-competition testing.
Bergsma said the team officials learned that when Rasmussen had said he was in Mexico – where his wife lives – he had actually been in Italy.
“It is not even sure if the team will carry on in the race,” he added.
Late last week, Danish federation officials announced that Rasmussen had been ejected from that country’s national squad and would not be representing Denmark at the world championships or at next year’s Olympic Games.
To add insult to injury, Rasmussen was also forced to fend off charges that he had attempted to trick a friend into transporting a cutting-edge hemoglobin replacement from the U.S. to Italy in 2002.
Ultimately, it was the missed-tests issue that finally brought the controversial Tour leader to his knees. Rabobank, sponsored by a leading Dutch bank, had been under increasing pressure since Rasmussen admitted to making an “administrative error” by missing random doping controls by the UCI on March 24, 2006, and June 28, 2007.
Rabobank director Theo de Rooy said the decision to pull Rasmussen – and to fire him – came down to a matter of trust.
“Several times he said where he was training and it proved to be wrong,” he said. “The management of the team received that information several times, and today we received new information.”
Last week’s revelations about the missed tests frustrated Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who said he would have fought to keep Rasmussen from even starting the Tour had he known about the issue.
“What I regret more than ever is that we didn’t have this information on June 29, or on the following days before the Tour started,” Prudhomme told AFP last weekend. “We would have made the Rabobank team face up to their responsibilities.”
Prudhomme – who at one point had phoned UCI president Pat McQuaid to berate him over not informing organizers about Rasmussen’s missed tests – said that there was not much more he and his co-directors of the race could have done. “We did all we could do to get rid of him,” Prudhomme told AFP.
“One cannot mock the Tour de France impunitively like those riders,” he added, referring to Rasmussen, Cristian Moreni – who also exited on Wednesday after failing a drugs test – and Alexandre Vinokourov, who was thrown out on Tuesday.
“I cannot comment on the matter now as I have not been notified by Rabobank,” UCI president Pat McQuaid told Reuters over the telephone on Wednesday. “I am just a little surprised that they did not discuss it with the UCI.”
Rasmussen had won two stages during the Tour, though, his presence at the race was questioned by several officials and from the race organizers as well. Mocking fans along the racecourse and a chorus of boos at the finish line indicate his lack of popularity with fans as well.
His departure leaves the young Spaniard Contador in the lead with Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) in second and American Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) in third.
The news, however, was not welcomed by Contador and Leipheimer’s team.
“We just heard the news 20 minutes ago,” said Discovery spokesman P.J. Rabice. “Obviously, this is not good news. We are in no way celebrating. It’s a major disappointment for us. It’s going to reflect very negatively on the whole sport. We are quite shocked and upset about it.
“Riders were just getting to bed when they heard the news. They have all heard the news now, and not one of them had a smile on their face. This is a sport they have all done for a number of years, and nobody is very happy about this.”
VeloNews writers Neal Rogers and Andrew Hood contributed to this report