News feature, July 27, 2007
Team Manager Johan Bruyneel of Discovery Channel moved one more step closer to taking his eighth maillot jaune with Alberto Contador when it was announced late Wednesday night in Pau that then race leader Michael Rasmussen would not start the following day in the 2007 Tour de France. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown was in Pau before the start of stage 17 to hear the Belgian's reaction.
Team Rabobank announced that 33 year-old Dane Michael Rasmussen, who took the maillot jaune with the finish in Tignes, would not carry on as race leader of the world largest bike race. He had lied to the cycling fans, lied to the public, lied to the UCI and lied to his Dutch team. The realization, after days of denial, had come as a shock to the Tour and to his teammates that had worked so hard to help him hold the yellow jersey, including Dutchman Michael Boogerd who is riding in his final year and Tour de France.
Bruyneel heard the news and knew that his young charge would take over the race lead as he was in second, 3'10" back at the end of the day's stage up the Col d'Aubisque. 24 year-old Alberto 'Kid' Contador, the current leader and likely winner of the maillot blanc of best young rider, immediately entered into the race lead in only his second Tour de France.
"It is definitely a situation, one that we do not like to be in," Bruyneel stated outside the Discovery Channel bus as the riders were lining up on a hot French day in the foothills of the Pyrénées. "I was shocked yesterday when I got the news; it was very late. Moreover, it is not why we came here; we came here to try to win the Tour de France."
"We have tried everything on the road and Rasmussen was the strongest guy." -Bruyneel on Michael Rasmussen's probable Tour victory, before Rabobank took matters into their own hands.
The team had fired its missiles at Rasmussen in the Alps and Pyrénées but the former World Mountain Bike Champion proved too resilient. When the final missile was fired, however, it came in the form of the stunning announcement from within the Rabobank team.
"We have tried everything on the road and Rasmussen was the strongest guy. We have tried to beat him on the Col de Peyresourde, yesterday, on the last climb [to the Col d'Aubisque] but now his team has made this decision. There has been some new information and they decided that he had to go."
Rasmussen reportedly is back in Italy where he makes his base with his Mexican wife. Tour director Christian Prudhomme stated that the Gendarmerie [French police] could not find him when they arrived at the team's hotel at 11pm Wednesday night.
"Since the start of the Tour, there were many strange news articles around him [Rasmussen]. There was a lot of pressure on his team, from the press, and maybe from the organization [ASO] itself. I am certainly not happy about it. I would have rather taken the yellow jersey as we had planned, with an attack on the Aubisque. But now we are where we are and we have to move forward."
Contador was not allowed to start in the race leader's yellow jersey on Thursday morning as per a decision by the organizers but he moved into the coveted maillot jaune the following afternoon when the peloton finished in Castelsarrasin. The last time the race started without the maillot jaune was two years ago when Bruyneel's rider Lance Armstrong refused to put it on after David Zabriskie's unfortunate crash in the team time trial the day before.
"I think that is normal," Bruyneel continued in regards to the lack of a leader's jersey for the stage. "The yellow jersey was won by someone else yesterday and no one has yet been awarded the stage. If I had the choice he would have not started with the yellow jersey."
The team came to the Tour de France with three objectives; the white jersey for Contador, a stage win and a podium spot for Levi Leipheimer. The USA-based team has practically accomplished the first two goals (Contador leads by 13'31" in the young rider standings) and, after Rasmussen's departure, Leipheimer sits in third. An added and unexpected bonus is that Contador has a chance at the overall win, and if he does not achieve that, a spot on the final podium is highly likely.
"We have strong team and we have experience with this," Bruyneel hinted towards his seven wins with Armstrong. "It is a bit of a strange situation to be in. We are not really prepared to for this and I told the guys that we have to deal with this; we have to focus on the race.
"There are a lot of distractions for the riders, for the staff. There is nothing we can do about it, we want to focus on the race and try to get through these two transition days as smoothly as possible because the time trial is going to be very, very important.
"Especially with a rider like Alberto; he is young. This is new to him, all of this attention and pressure. We need [the media] to allow him to have a little bit of space to focus on the race. He is a great rider and I think he has bright future." The media bombarded the Spaniard Thursday morning as he left the team bus to start the race.
Bruyneel, who has raced his bike as a professional for 10 years and has guided a team at the Tour for nine times, is not only worried about achieving his objectives at the Tour, but also about securing a new sponsor for 2008 and beyond. Discovery Channel had planned its departure since early this year, around the time that the team made the controversial signing of Ivan Basso.
"The Tour is such a big race and when something happens here it is bigger than anything else in any other race," he remarked. "I think we have seen a great race until now.
"The people on the roads, especially in the Pyrénées, have been great. And in Spain, of course with a Spanish guy who is trying to win, the fans were just amazing. I think the people love this sport. There have been some great stages and some great attacks. It is a pity that some of these events are in the middle of the Tour de France."
The race continues tomorrow with a 211-kilometre stage to Angoulême and then, the true and final test, the 55.5-kilometre time trial from Cognac to Angoulême.