By Gregor Brown in Castres
A Tour de France without a doping controversy just isn't the same, it seems, and this year it's the Danish climber and current race leader, Michael 'Chicken' Rasmussen, who's the primary target of speculation.
It's been revealed by his national federation, in a great piece of timing, that he'd failed to follow protocol and keep authorities informed of his location in case he was to be visited for random, out-of-competition dope testing.
It's since been revealed that Rasmussen missed four out-of-competition doping controls in the past 15 months, enough for the Danish Cycling Federation to announce it had dropped him from its team for the 2007 UCI Road World Championships, to be held in Germany, as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
While Rasmussen was tested in late June this year and also prior to the Tour - both results was negative - the rider has become the centre of a firestorm over his eligibility to compete in the Tour due to his somewhat tardy approach to informing doping regulators of his whereabouts.
Separately, the ugly side of cycling politics reared when the organizers of the Tour de France, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), believed it was the International Cycling Union (UCI) behind this revelation, in an attempt to discredit the race. (Note: this is part of the ongoing battle between the UCI and Grand Tour organizers, like ASO, over television rights to the ProTour.)
However, the ASO's assertion has been strenuously denied by the UCI, which claims it was the Danish Cycling Federation that made its team selection announcement independently and without provocation or pressure from the sport's ruling body.
The timing of the Danish federation's announcement is being questioned, given it could have announced its decision earlier. Technically, the TdF's current race leader - while sailing close to the edge - has not committed a doping violation, but this has not stopped him from being at the centre of the media's inevitable speculation about doping.
During a press conference held after stage 12, a question was asked concerning an alleged incident dating back five years, when Rasmussen was establishing himself as a road cyclist, after being a very successful mountainbike racer. A reporter asked if Rasmussen knew another MTB racer, American Whitney Richards, who apparently alleges that, "he (Richards) was asked by you (Rasmussen) to bring a box to Italy from the United States and he was told it was it was cycling shoes and, er, he opened the box and found some kind of bovine hemoglobin". Rasmussen said he knew the person's name, but "could not confirm any of that".
Further questions asked Rasmussen about the four written warnings - two from the UCI, two from Denmark's anti-doping agency - that he'd not been following protocol in updating the information on his whereabouts.
Rasmussen explained his non-availability over the past year: "I have one [warning] from last year, and the ones from March, where I pure and simply forgot to send in my second quarter information to the UCI.
"They immediately issued a warning on the 24th of March, even though the information they had on me went until the 31st of that same month. I received another one [warning] ... the 26th or 29th of June this year, from the UCI, I received one from the Danish federation as well, because they get their information from the same UCI database. If the database is not updated correctly then they will not know, and obviously, I might not be there." He said this accounted for four separate warnings from the UCI and Danish Cycling Federation combined.
Further, Rasmussen has reportedly not had a great relationship with his federation's director, Jesper Worre, nor has he raced in his home country's national tour.
After today's stage, a testing individual time trial, it's unlikely the gangly Dane will be in the yellow jersey, but whether the questions stop with his reduced profile remains to be seen.