By Brecht Decaluwé in Castelsarrasin
The Rabobank team received most media attention during Stage 17, although that was of course not because of the stage's race action but because of the team leader's untimely exit, now known in the press as the 'chicken run'. Rabobank's directeur sportif Erik Breukink still had the number one on the car as race leader, but he wasn't driving in first position in the caravan today. "Bruyneel told me that I could drive in front but I couldn't afford to do that," said Breukink. "I was hiding somewhere in ninth position, I really couldn't afford to do that."
Together with the former white jersey winner from the 1988 Tour de France, Cyclingnews looked back at the rollercoaster past 24 hours. After the departure from Rasmussen the team came together to discuss their further participation in the Tour de France and decided that every rider could choose for themselves. "They gathered all their courage and went to the start this morning," Breukink said about the seven Rabobank starters.
During Stage 17, Rabobank's Russian, Denis Menchov, abandoned leaving the team with six men. "I think that these six boys will press through to Paris and they probably felt it was a good decision to continue." When asked why Menchov didn't continue his race Breukink was rather cynical. "Denis was tired and without morale, he said he would prepare for the Vuelta so let's say that was a positive sign," was Breukink's take on losing another rider.
It's understandable that the morale of the orange army is rather low these days, Breukink explained, "Suddenly everything they intensively worked for - all their goals - disappeared in front of their eyes. Last night was so chaotic but what's left now is just disappointment."
The departure of Rasmussen was probably the moment that everybody will remember from the 2007 Tour de France and of course photographers were lined up to capture this moment. Cyclingnews was informed that a photographer who surprised the Danish rider, when he left the hotel like a thief in the night, was attacked by Rabobank people who forced the photographer to give up his camera. Luckily other people showed up and the pictures became available for the whole world.
Breukink wasn't asked for his opinion when the decision was made to force Rasmussen to leave the Tour, nor to fire him. "When I came back the decision was already made, I don't mind that I didn't have a word in it, a quick decision was needed," Breukink explained, perhaps regretting that he wasn't asked for his opinion.
"You're confronted with something that you can't rewind and that's tough although this doesn't mean I don't support the team's decision. I would have liked to see that everything went as planned and that we could just finish the race," Breukink said, "but that was clearly not possible." The Dutchman pointed out that he wasn't against the team's decision though. "I can't be against the team's decision because I don't know the content of the conversations between everybody. But I agree that we couldn't keep someone who didn't follow the rules. Also, it's obvious that the pressure was mounting."
The removal of a rider during the Tour because he missed doping tests indicates that the 'chicken' might have been on slippery grounds in June. "That's not the case since there is no proof for that," Breukink countered, affirming that there was no evidence of Rasmussen doping. "There are only anti-doping rules that take on the cheaters but clearly also the suspicious riders who didn't fully follow the rules. You can find many reasons for his lies but it's in the UCI-rules so he had to walk that line. That reason is good enough to take serious measures."
"There are so many doping cases because there are so many controls," he added. "That's not bad but it confronts us with a lot of misery." Another man who is confronted with misery is the 'chicken' himself, who blamed his team manager Theo de Rooy. "There is no evidence, this is madness," the Dane said. Breukink understood the reaction of his former rider. "I think he is downhearted right now and I think we need to understand that."
It was a clearly deceived Breukink who talked with the press and he didn't hide his mixed feelings but reassured those who worried about him. "I'll make it to Paris, don't worry."