Michael Rasmussen has returned to the professional peloton with Italian Continental team Miche Silver Cross at Argentina's Tour of San Luis held from January 18-24, 2010. The Dane is eyeing a top ten finish in the season opener and looking forward to a smooth return to full European schedule set to begin in February.
"I'm feeling OK," Rasmussen told Cyclingnews. "If I can finish in the top ten in the overall here then I will be happy and if I can win a stage then I will be stunned. I think course-wise this race suits me very well but it might be a little early. Already on Tuesday there will be the first mountaintop finish and even though it is only four kilometres it will give a good indication as to who is going well."
The Tour of San Luis is in its fourth year and teh second year as a UCI 2.1 category event, making it the highest ranked and most important cycling race in South America. The peloton will consist of nine national teams include defending champions Team Argentina along with Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Cuba.
"It is very important for all the locals, Chileans and Brazilians and others because it's their summer here," Rasmussen said. "I'm coming off my holidays and in Europe it's been snowing and raining all over the place so we [European cyclists] are a little bit behind. I've never raced in January before in my life."
While many of the highest quality teams are taking part in Australia's Tour Down Under this week, Argentina's warm summer weather attracted three ProTour teams Liquigas-Doimo, Katusha and Footon-Servetto along with five Professional Continental teams ISD, Andalucia Cajasur, Xacobeo-Galicia, Scott-Marcondes and Androni-Giacatolli.
"I have a fairly good idea who can do something here but there are always surprises at these kinds of events," Rasmussen said. "I think there will be a few Argentinean riders that can go fast and maybe a couple of Venezuelans and some Europeans. I think there will be a couple of guys from Katusha and Liquigas. I hope I can be in the mix also. It is one of the best places to ride bikes in the world right now so I'm happy to be here."
Rasmussen signed with Miche Silver Cross on January 2 and attributes his signing to the reason the team was invited to compete in the Tour of San Luis.
"I haven't been training that intensely," Rasmussen said. "I knew that I would be going to race here because [Giovanni] Lombardi wanted me here. To train hard all winter just to do one race in January is difficult. Once I signed and I knew that I had a program for the rest of the year, now it is a little easier and I know I'll be racing once I get back to Europe."
Rasmussen said the first half of his racing season will include the Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria-Challenge Calabria, Tour Méditerranéen Cycliste Professionnel Giro di Sardegna, Giro del Friuli, Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, Settimana Ciclistica Lombarda by Bergamasca and Giro del Trentino. "I'll be racing more than ever starting in the first month of the year," Rasmussen said.
Comeback harder than expected
"You cannot take the probable winner of the Tour de France out four days before the end of the race and just give him a slap on the wrist and let him race again two weeks after. When you make a decision that radical you have to have him disappear for life."
Rasmussen's former Rabobank team removed him from the 2007 Tour de France when he was leading the race, just four days before it ended, for violating the requirements of the anti-doping whereabouts program. Subsequently, he received a two-year suspension that was completed as of July 26, 2009. He returned to the peloton with the Mexican-based Tecos-Trek team and wore the leader's jersey for several stages of the Vuelta a Chihuahua in Mexico in October.
He was hoping to restart his career at the top and eyed a Grand Tour racing comeback. However, returning to the peloton has not been as simple as the Danish climber anticipated. He signed a preliminary contract with the Spanish team Contentpolis-Ampo however, due to a loss of sponsorship the team folded and Rasmussen was left to search for another option.
"Miche contacted me and it became a long distance relationship," Rasmussen said. "I met them all for the first time when I got here in San Luis. Without them I wouldn't have had a team. Now for the team, they might have bigger options and different possibilities from signing me, it might open a few more doors in some senses. That is why they are here, they got the invitation because of me."
According to Rasmussen his negotiations with top-ranked teams began before his suspension had ended. The Italian Professional Continental team Ceramica Flaminia offered him a pre-contract following the Giro d' Italia last year. The said contract was to start upon the conclusion of his suspension on July 26 and run through the following year. However, discussions between Ceramic Flaminia and the International Cycling Union (UCI) left the team doubting whether or not it was a good idea to hire Rasmussen.
"Somehow, they got the message that it was a bad idea," Rasmussen said. "They were basically not allowed to sign me, coming from the UCI. It surprised me because ten days later they signed Ricardo Ricco. There is so much hypocrisy in cycling."
Rasmussen says that he had trouble finding a contract at the ProTour and Professional Continental level despite many of these teams expressing a deep interest in hiring him.
"I'm glad now that I can be reinserted into the peloton again on a regular basis and not guest riding," Rasmussen said. "I had a lot of difficulties finding a spot. I spoke with all the teams and I did not think that I would have met this much hypocrisy because 90-percent of the teams that I spoke to wanted me."
"The professional teams are afraid of losing invitations to the Grand Tours, the UCI, the reactions from the press and God knows what else. At the same time I am being sidelined, I witnessed [Ivan] Basso being a superhero in Italy and [Alexander] Vinokourov racing the Vuelta [a Espana], Emanuelle Sella signing a contract and racing immediately and Ricardo Ricco signing a contract and so on and so on. I was even denied getting a license from the Danish federation."
When asked to compare his punishment to the others cyclists who have served the maximum two-year suspensions, Rasmussen said plainly, "They have to find a way to justify kicking me out. If you ask me, you cannot take the probable winner of the Tour de France out four days before the end of the race and just give him a slap on the wrist and let him race again two weeks after. When you make a decision that radical you have to have him disappear for life."