By Jerome Pugmire
Thursday, July 26, 2007
GOURETTE, France, July 25 -- Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was removed from the race by his team after winning Wednesday's stage, the biggest blow yet in cycling's doping-tainted premier event.
"Michael Rasmussen has been sent home for violating [the team's] internal rules," Rabobank team spokesman Jacob Bergsma said by phone.
The expulsion, which Bergsma said was ordered by the Dutch team sponsor, was linked to "incorrect" information that Rasmussen gave the team's sports director regarding his whereabouts last month. Rasmussen, who also has been suspended from the team, missed random drug tests May 8 and June 28, saying he was in Mexico. But a former rider, Davide Cassani, told Denmark's Danmarks Radio on Wednesday that he had seen Rasmussen in Italy in mid-June.
Only once before in the history of the 104-year-old Tour has the race leader been expelled. In 1978, Belgian rider Michel Pollentier, trying to evade doping controls after winning a stage at the Alpe d'Huez in the Alps, was caught with an intricate tube-and-container system that contained urine that was not his, Tour historian Jean-Paul Brouchon said.
Rasmussen, who has led since July 15 and looked set to win the race, which will end on Sunday in Paris, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
But hours before he was kicked out of the Tour, the 33-year-old said he was being victimized.
"Of course I'm clean," Rasmussen said after a doping test following his win in the 16th stage. "Like I said, I've been tested 17 times now in less than two weeks. Both the peloton and the public, they're just taking their frustration out on me now. I mean, all I can say is that by now I had my test number 17 on this Tour, and all of those have come back negative. I don't feel I can do any more than that."
Although Rasmussen has not tested positive, race officials questioned why Rasmussen was allowed to take the start on July 7 in London.
"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.
The leader of cycling's governing body applauded the decision.
"My immediate reaction is, why didn't they do this at the end of June, when they had the same information," said Pat McQuaid, president of the UCI. "The team decided to pull him out; that's their prerogative. I can only applaud that. It's a zero-tolerance policy, and it's a lesson for the future."
With Rasmussen out, Spanish rider Alberto Contador of the Discovery Channel team moved into the lead. Australian Cadel Evans, who rides for Predictor-Lotto, moved up to second, with U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer, also with Discovery, now third.
"It's in no way a celebration on our end. It's the third piece of bad news," Discovery Channel spokesman P.J. Rabice said. "It reflects badly on our sport."
In recent days, Tour riders had openly voiced their skepticism about Rasmussen, and some fans booed him at the start of Wednesday's stage. Last week, he was kicked off the Danish national team for those two missed drug tests.
After the Tour's upbeat start in London, when millions of spectators lined the streets, bad news -- nearly all of it related to doping -- quickly claimed the spotlight.
German rider Patrick Sinkewitz crashed into a spectator, then was revealed to have failed a drug test in training before the race began.
Then on Tuesday, star cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was sent home after testing positive for a banned blood transfusion, and his team pulled out of the race. Wednesday, it happened again when the Cofidis squad confirmed one of its riders, Cristian Moreni of Italy, had failed a doping test, prompting the withdrawal of the entire squad.
Police detained Moreni, who was in 54th place overall, after he finished the stage and searched the hotel where his Cofidis team was staying. Results from the raid weren't expected until Thursday. France has tough laws against trafficking in doping products.
"He accepted his wrongdoing and did not ask for a 'B' sample," Cofidis Manager Eric Boyer said, referring to a follow-up test athletes are entitles to ask for following a positive test result.
At the start of the stage, dozens of riders staged a silent protest against the continuing doping scandals. The pack of riders split into two groups: those who took the start as normal -- including Rasmussen -- and those who protested by hanging back, causing a 13-minute delay.
"We're fed up," AG2R rider Ludovic Turpin of France told Eurosport television.