By Andrew Hood
Former mountain-bike world champion Michael Rasmussen is now firmly entrenched on the road.
Last season, he rode in support of Tyler Hamilton’s second-place finish at the Giro d’Italia and won a difficult mountain stage at the Tour of Burgos in August. The Dane penned a two-year deal to join Rabobank and has eyes of making the 2003 Tour de France team and lending help to another American – this time Levi Leipheimer.
Unfortunately for Rasmussen, he crashed during a team training camp in May and broke his hand, throwing in doubt his start for July’s Tour de France.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Rasmussen earlier this season. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: How has it been so far in Rabobank?
Michael Rasmussen: They’ve been really good for me. The team has opened up the doors to foreigners a little more than they have in the past. I think they realized they couldn’t accumulate enough riders from within Holland to fill a team of 25 riders, so they had to go abroad and they brought in Rob Hunter, Oscar (Freire), me and it’s made the atmosphere a little more international here.
VN: How does it compare to your experience at CSC?
MR: You can tell Rabobank has been around a long time. It’s very well-structured and you could say perhaps a little bit more conservative. That’s why you don’t see any female soigneurs on the team, because they don’t believe they belong in cycling. But things are going very well. It’s a good team to be on.
VN: What’s the major difference between the two teams?
MR: This team focuses a lot on winning. That’s one of the big differences here at Rabobank. Finishing eighth in GC doesn’t do anything for the team if you don’t have a stage-win. That’s what I really like about this team, is that they always have a plan to attack. They always go for the win. It’s not a matter of accumulating points in the end or anything like that. That comes all together in the end if the wins come.
VN: You signed a two-year contract?
MR: Certainly with the way things are going now in international cycling, it’s not bad to have a two-year contract.
VN: How did your deal go down with Rabobank?
MR: After I started to ride fast in August and September, and hearing about one team after another closing down, I thought it would be a good time to be taking a look for myself. I sent my resume out to some teams I was interested in riding with. I did have an oral agreement with (CSC’s boss Bjarne) Riis, but it never got signed. At a certain point, we couldn’t agree to the terms of the contract. I contacted Rabobank and half-hour later I had a contract in my hand. I was talking to Theo de Rooy and he talked to Jan Raas. Half-hour later I was deciding if I wanted a one- or two-year deal. Then I signed on the dotted line.
VN: How important was your stage-victory at Vuelta a Burgos last year?
MR: That was a big breakthrough for me, that’s for sure. I proved to myself and a lot of other people that I could ride with the best in the mountains. I believe at that time of the year, I was the strongest guy in the mountains between the Tour and the Vuelta. There didn’t seem to be too many able to do that. I had two months where things went really well for me. Last year in August and September things went great.
VN: Looking back at your experience in your first full year on the road, what was the high point for you?
MR: The win at Burgos was the high point, for sure, because of what I proved to myself and everyone else that I can go fast. That gives me a lot of confidence and if I go in 100-percent, that means I think I can ride with the top-10 in the mountains. The Vuelta will be the best-suited for me.
VN: What was the low point?
MR: I was very disappointed at Liege. I got sick the night before the race and I spent a week in bed with the flu. I had great form and I was going to be the man for the team for the race. That was a big disappointment. That affected my preparations for the Giro as well. I was pretty close to calling Riis and saying I wasn’t going to be able to go to the Giro. I got through it and it made me stronger.
VN: Will we ever see you race a mountain bike again?
MR: I doubt it.
VN: You’re on the road and you’re here to stay?
MR: With the way things are going in mountain biking, yes. It doesn’t have a huge future. For the masses, it does, and the long-distance racing, but at the elite level, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
VN: Any chance of doing the Olympics next summer on the mountain bike?
MR: It has crossed my mind to do both (road and mountain bike). That all depends on the national selection procedures because they will, of course, ask me to do some races before to qualify. I don’t know if I want to put myself between two chairs. It’s better to do one job good instead of doing two jobs not so good.
VN: Last year, we talked about some of the hurdles you faced as a mountain biker in the peloton. Do you get the respect now?
MR: I think we’re very much accepted now by the road guys. There are four guys now who can do well on the road (himself, Dario Cioni, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez). Between the four of us, we can be a threat for a race at anytime, not that we race together, but it’s a little ironic that we had to switch to the road to get credit for what we did in mountain biking. Before, we did not get a lot of credit among the road riders, but now they realize that the level is fairly high in that part of cycling, too.
VN: You took a big chance walking away from mountain biking, didn’t you?
MR: It’s really like a fairy tale for me. In 2000, I was riding at half-salary on a little amateur team in Austria, then getting my chance at CSC and doing well in four races (at the end of 2001). Now I’m here. It was a big chance to take and it feels good to accomplish it. I haven’t been given anything, by knowing people to get me in or anything like that. I’m here because I deserve to be here.