Tales from the peloton, July 30, 2007
In addition to his nickname 'Chicken', Danish rider Michael Rasmussen will forever be known as the man who didn't win the 2007 Tour de France. Right or wrong, the Rabobank rider was ousted from his team under questionable circumstances and Rasmussen is now seeking answers, reports Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson.
The tale played out like something from the script of a Hollywood blockbuster. Last Wednesday night Michael Rasmussen was stashed away in a secret cottage before fleeing the country the following morning on a jet privately chartered by his Rabobank team. But Rasmussen's exit from the Tour de France was anything but glamorous, with the then maillot jaune dismayed at the sudden action taken byhis team.
While exactly how Rasmussen was dismissed by his team, and swept out the back door while holding the Tour's prestigious yellow jersey, remained somewhat of a secret until now, the reason for the actions has been the focus of the world's sports media. Tucked away in his Italian residence since last Thursday, Rasmussen finally gave an extensive interview on the past week's events to Denmark's TV2.
"It's a surrealistic situation, don't you think?" Rasmussen said of the situation. "I just had the greatest day of my cycling career and won on top of the Col d'Aubisque in the yellow jersey, and in reality I won Tour de France that day. Only to be kicked out of the hotel hours later."
Less than 24 hours later, after a stage win and appearing at a rest-day press conference alongside Rabobank manager, Theo De Rooy - where they defended Rasmussen's participation in the Tour - the Dane was called into Rabobank's team bus and informed the Dutch squad had pulled him from the Tour. His future with the squad hadn't been discussed, but there and then, it was largely irrelevant: "I had just been robbed the Tour de France victory," commented a shattered Rasmussen.
Having defended him to the world's media the previous day, Rabobank made the painful decision to dump its Tour-leading rider after former professional Davide Cassani alleged that Rasmussen was in Italy at the time he claimed to be in Mexico (one of Rasmussen's reasons for not properly filing his documents to assist out-of-competition dope testers, which are central to the whole situation). Exactly where Rasmussen was at the time is now hazy, with the rider refusing to comment on this key point. When repeatedly pressed on the topic, and confronted with a question of having documents such as passports to support his version of events, Rasmussen would only respond: "Well, what I am saying is that now we have to see what the [legal] case brings and we will take it from there."
The Rabobank team's harsh decision, as Rasmussen describes it, will be looked into by the rider's legal counsel when he meets later this week. But don't except another long, drawn-out Tour-related courtroom battle, as that's not what the Dane is seeking. "No, I think no one will benefit from that," he said, adding that he wants the matter sorted in a manner of "peace and toleration".
Rasmussen was appreciative to his squad for the discreet way it protected him from the media, and returned him to Verona airport. Having been whisked out of the country, Rasmussen read on teletext of his sacking, something Rabobank confirmed in a formal letter following a request from Rasmussen.
Rasmussen thanked his former teammates for their support throughout the recent days, including Denis Menchov's withdrawal from the event which Rasmussen dubbed a, "huge gesture coming from such a great rider". The rider also showed respect for his former boss and pal De Rooy. "There is no doubt that he has been under enormous pressure and he has been accused of many things during the Tour," said Rasmussen. "At some point his façade cracked and he made this decision."
It is, however, a decision which Rasmussen is struggling to comprehend. "Since the day I was excluded, and for the rest of my life, I will wake up in the morning and remember that I didn't win the Tour de France because I was wrongfully excluded from the race," he said. "Maybe you can compare it to having a Picasso painting stolen.
"I was on my way to achieving the greatest thing I am capable of," he continued, " and it was taken from me."
Rasmussen doesn't understand exactly how, or why, his situation has landed him mourning what could have been, and almost was, in Italy when he feels he should be celebrating in France. He's questioned the releasing of sensitive information relating to his whereabouts schedule, he's questioned the timing of the information's release, he's questioned the Denmark authority's role in everything, and he can't understand why Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme would applaud Rabobank for firing him, when Rasmussen believes he's not done anything wrong.
The way Rasmussen tells it, Anti-Doping Denmark (the country's anti-doping authority) has no right to test him, as the 33 year-old races under a Monaco licence. Nor can the Denmark Cycling Union kick him off the national team, as he's never been guaranteed a future position on the team and hasn't been a member since 2004; it's hard to be kicked off a team you're not on, he implies. Furthermore, he quashed the suggestion that he had signed a DCU authority document, giving the body the right to test him. "No, I have absolutely not signed anything from DCU," he claimed.
The rider again confessed that there was a warning issued by the UCI in March of 2006, when he was one of six Rabobank riders contacted after failing to lodge their schedules. However that instance, in spite of whether he feels a warning was warranted or not, was only one of two warnings received, as he tells it, one short of the requirement for the UCI to go public on the issue. "If I had received a third warning a case would be opened," he said. "And then the UCI could sanction me. But because there was only two there was no sensible reason to go public.
"There are a lot of other riders in Denmark and on the National Team with warnings that the public knows nothing about," claimed Rasmussen. "So once again, a remarkably special treatment has been carried out."
Asked if he had ever doped, Rasmussen flatly responded with a "no, absolutely not", adding that of the 17 tests he's had since June 30, there's not been any trace of suspicion of doping. "[The] UCI has, various times, stated that there are absolutely no motives for me not entering the Tour de France this year," he reported. "Therefore I really cannot see why this is a problem at all."
"It is highly reprehensible that a race director feels that he has the right to kick riders out of the competition and 'choose' the winner himself," responded Rasmussen when asked about ASO pressuring Rabobank into its decision. "Meaning, if he wanted to, he could attack Contador, attack Evans and ... so maybe a Frenchman could be on the podium..."
While Rasmussen indicated that he doesn't necessarily believe that's the case, one thing he's sure of is his feelings towards DCU head Jesper Worre. Rasmussen reported that he'd received a call from Worre since this debacle began unfolding, in which Worre said the DCU was definitely not Rasmussen's enemy. Asked if he believed Worre's comments, Rasmussen responded: "They are definitely not my friends. One can interpret this as one likes."
The outcome of Rasmussen's legal discussions with Rabobank is largely irrelevant - he will never be the 2007 Tour de France champion, and that's what mattered most to the Dane. Rasmussen, who says he feels like a smear campaign by some media has been played out against him, is not concerned about the financial ramifications of the legal case but is a bit bitter about the massive sum he missed by not taking victory in Paris. "Yes, but besides the financial problem there will be some tough feelings that no money in the world can replace," he said.
No amount of money may be able to replace those feelings, but that certainly doesn't mean the Danish rider's Tour dreams have been scorched. Rasmussen feels he will return to the professional peloton in no time at all, and despite having some bitter feelings if he's offered another shot at the maillot jaune he'll grasp it with both hands.
"Yes, I am convinced that there are a lot of people who easily can see that mistakes have happened in this case, because a rash decision has been made," he said, adding that he's certainly not contested his last professional event.
While 'Chicken' is confident of re-hatching his professional career, and the wounds from battles with eventual Tour winner Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) over the Pyrénées will eventually heal, the shock of being dumped during this year's event is a different story. "I will never recover from that," he said.
If nothing else, Rasmussen is certain of one thing: "I am pretty convinced it's not the best rider who won the Tour de France this year," he declared.