Beaten by the shadow of doubt…
Flashback from RIDE #38 (published September 2007)
Michael Rasmussen missed a few doping controls in the lead-up to the Tour de France but insisted that it was an innocent mistake. In this era of suspicion his excuse was not good enough. Despite being in the lead of the race, his team made the unprecedented decision to sack him and surrender its hope of victory in favour of honesty.
Telling the truth is hard; not doing so is more difficult. At this year’s Tour de France the climbing king Michael Rasmussen was presented with a heavy tax for his dishonesty.
After two years of bliss wearing the polka-dot jersey, the Danish rider appeared poised to take charge of yellow. He won two stages and held a commanding lead in the general classification. Then, thanks largely to the pressure exerted by a media corps that has grown sick and tired of riders’ lies, he was forced to abandon his hopes of being crowned the winner of the 94th edition because he raced under a shadow of doubt.
For the second year of the post-Armstrong era the winner of the Tour has been forced to surrender his title to a Spaniard who, for all intents and purposes, came second.
Oscar Pereiro has been crowned 2006 Tour champion after Floyd Landis’ disqualification and subsequent two-year ban and Alberto Contador is recognised as the winner this year. But not even he believed that this would be the case.
“I must accept defeat.” Contador’s appraisal of his fate after 16 stages reflected the state of the situation at hand. Atop the Col d’Aubisque he noted his rival’s dominance and confessed that his last real chance to inherit the overall lead was gone.
Hours later he would be proven wrong. Rasmussen had a virtually unbeatable lead after the final mountain stage. He was over three minutes ahead but, before the end of the day, his time gains would mean naught; he was evicted from the race in an unprecedented manner. The fairy tale was over. His team’s management could no longer tolerate being part of a charade. Before the stroke of midnight Rabobank withdrew him from the race he was on the brink of winning and sacked him.
There are many factors that led his Dutch-registered squad to take the action it did but the catalyst for Rasmussen’s eviction was initially delivered as a simple compliment.
Prompted by the need to talk during RAI Television’s race coverage, the Italian commentator Davide Cassani offered an anecdote during the coverage of stage eight. It was the day that the Dane bolted ahead of the peloton and onwards to victory and his first taste of the yellow jersey. Well before the final ascent to Tignes Rasmussen attacked; ahead of him lay 90km and three big climbs. There was time to talk and Cassani relayed a tale of a chance meeting 32 days earlier.
On 13 June 2007, a cold & rainy day in the Dolomites, Cassani met Rasmussen who was out training by himself and had been doing so for six hours. “When I spoke about this live on TV,” explained the commentator, “it was my intention to make him appear friendly. I wanted to explain the sacrifices a rider has to make to be competitive in the Tour de France.”
The former cyclist dropped a bomb that would detonate a week later although he never expected such consequences.
There had been drama on the day of Cassani’s comment. Michael Rogers rode a strong and tactically brilliant opening hour, putting himself in an escape of 19 men. At the base of the Cormet de Roseland climb his group was almost two minutes ahead of the peloton. That’s when Rasmussen started to dance. He attacked the bunch but prompted no reaction. Why would he?
This is his raison d’être: attack, claim climbing points and inherit the polka-dot top denoting his status as Climbing King.
Rasmussen’s move midway through the eighth stage didn’t resemble an attempt to win the Tour. Rather it was a repeat of his feats in the two previous editions where he collected enough points to secure the lead in the mountains classification before settling in to defend that jersey for the rest of the race.
“This is the Tour and numerous scenarios can be presented,” said directeur sportif Erik Breukink earlier that day. “If we’re in the finale with a few guys and see that one of the favourites is suffering then we’ll take a chance and be bold.”
They didn’t have to wait for the finale. Rasmussen was bold well before then. He had already attacked the best riders in the world and ridden away from them with apparent ease. But he had also lied about his whereabouts in the lead-up to the Tour and missed numerous doping controls. This, we would soon learn, was a costly breach of his professional responsibilities.
At the penultimate climb’s summit on the stage to Tignes, Rogers was the virtual leader of the Tour. He began the day ranked 14th overall, 4:03 behind Linus Gerdemann, and his advantage on the bunch at the top of the Cormet de Roseland was 5:10. On the descent this all changed. The Australian crashed and was forced to abandon because of his injuries. The Dane bolted onwards to win the stage and take yellow. And the Italian sportscaster related his innocent yarn that would ultimately alter the final result of the Tour.
Cassani still rides his bike regularly. He publishes books and produces videos about riders’ results and courses for training. That’s why he was in the Dolomites in June. And it was his chance meeting with Rasmussen that provided enough proof for Rabobank’s management to consider that the rider had been dishonest and did not deserve to be on the team.
“Rasmussen appeared to have lied about his true whereabouts in the training period before the Tour,” read his team’s official statement a day after he won the Col d’Aubisque stage. “As it turns out now, he was not in the place that he had filled in on his whereabouts papers and that he had handed in to the UCI, which he had already done too late.
“An incorrect notification of one’s whereabouts is a flagrant violation of regulations and unacceptable. This development is a black page in the history of the Rabo cycling plan.”
The head of sponsorship for the Dutch bank insisted her company would continue to support the sport but admitted being dumbfounded by the rider’s antics. “I feel powerless and angry,” said Heleen Crielaard. “We were already preparing a party in case we would win the yellow [jersey] in Paris. Unfortunately, that is not what is going to happen and, additionally, it occurred in such an unsportsmanlike manner.”
There had already been rumours in Denmark that the cycling federation no longer wanted to select Rasmussen for the national team. The former MTB world champion had announced he’d like to make a comeback to off-road racing for the Beijing Olympics. Jesper Worre, a former pro cyclist who is now employed as the director general of the federation, told a Danish television network that Rasmussen would not be eligible for the world championships or Olympics because he had missed too many out-of-competition doping controls.
This information would not have been made public during the Tour had journalists not questioned Worre. It would not have been released until the Danish federation announced its selection for the world championships. And it would not have meant much at all in the quagmire of other doping scandals.
“When questioned about something,” he explained, “it’s not our policy to lie.” That rules out the suspicion that it was a manoeuvre from the UCI to tarnish the Tour even if the event’s director Christian Prudhomme called the president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid, and offered his take on the situation: “You want to kill the Tour de France, right?”
McQuaid insists he had nothing to do with the news about Rasmussen’s ban from his national team being broken. It was, in fact, the work of the media that created the most damage.
“Who profits from this situation?” Prudhomme questioned during a press conference on 20 June, five days after Rasmussen took the yellow jersey. He was embarrassed. How could he explain that an athlete who is banned from the worlds and Olympics is allowed to race – and possibly win – the Tour?
A federation has the right to select its riders regardless of results. Denmark considered Rasmussen wasn’t worthy of representation because he had lied about his whereabouts too many times. But he wasn’t banned from racing by the UCI who had only warned him about missing out-of-competition tests. How many? Two, the UCI said. Four, the Danish federation claimed. It had included two more that should have been conducted by the Danish anti-doping agency.
The French sporting newspaper L’Equipe noted a clause in the UCI’s anti-doping examination regulations stating that: “In case of a recorded warning or a missed test in a period of 45 days before the start of a Major Tour, the rider is not allowed to participate in that Tour.” (Chapter VIII, section 220.) Had the UCI respected its own rules, Rasmussen would have been prevented from starting the Tour. It’s a familiar tone for those accustomed to the ways of cycling’s regulatory body.
In a similar fashion, the UCI hadn’t always adhered to its dictum that, “a rider who shows a medical prescription for a banned substance after testing positive will be considered positive”. This occurred on at least two notable occasions: traces of lidocaine were found in Laurent Brochard’s urine after he won the 1997 world championships and Lance Armstrong’s use of corticoids during his victorious 1999 Tour de France campaign. At the time of the control these two riders had not stated that they had taken these substances for medical purposes but they did manage to locate a prescription after the analysis. Each case represented a significant backflip by the UCI.
McQuaid explained that, in relation to Rasmussen, the UCI had chosen to apply Chapter V, section 86 of its anti-doping rules dictating that a rider is banned from racing if he receives three warnings. The Dane received only two and was therefore permitted to ride the Tour.
Significant contradictions existed although, had the situation not changed, Rabobank’s Danish climbing phenomenon could have continued on racing to a possible victory.
By the end of the second week interest in Rasmussen’s case was reminiscent of the Festina scandal of 1998 but the latest controversy had not descended into total chaos… yet. The race leader wasn’t considered the strongest candidate for overall honours. Everyone – including the rider himself – believed his lack of ability in the time trial would be his undoing.
“I still have to negotiate 110km of time trialling which is not exactly my speciality,” said Rasmussen on the day that he took the yellow jersey. “I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to the time trial; I’m looking forward to getting done with it.”
Six days later Rasmussen’s chances of winning the Tour appeared much healthier than expected. He finished 11th in the 13th stage and still was in control of GC (leading Cadel Evans by exactly one minute) after the 54km time trial. And the climbs of the Pyrenees were yet to come.
There was a time in cycling when journalists accepted the status of the Tour’s winner regardless of how dubious the result may have seemed. Following the Festina Affair, seven years of domination by Lance Armstrong, the stripping of Floyd Landis’ 2006 title, the death of Marco Pantani, the dramatic fall from grace of Jan Ullrich and the confession of cheating in the year of his victory by Bjarne Riis, those who deliver the news of the sport are no longer prepared to do so. With clouds of doubt surrounding the yellow jersey winners over the past 12 years, the media and fans demand more transparency.
Rasmussen tried to avoid any confrontation. A press conference during the second rest day in Pau was initially ruled out. Instead the rider would give just two interviews: one to a Danish TV network, the other to a Dutch channel… and each would deal only with matters relating to the actual race.
There were numerous objections by journalists to this cryptic accord that limited access to the Tour leader. Representatives of respected Dutch media organisations called the sponsors and complained. Eventually there was a change of policy.
Rasmussen, his team manager Theo de Rooij and lawyer Harro Knijff fronted a press conference in Pau. It was a disaster! The trio seemed to believe that explanations about procedures and confidentiality would suffice and De Rooij tried to convince those present that Rasmussen’s case wasn’t in the public’s interest. “The team’s coach speaks almost daily with every rider,” said De Rooij, “so Rabobank knows about its athletes’ whereabouts.” It wasn’t good enough. Doubt remained.
The ramifications of the debacle affected more people than just the rider. Less than a week after the Tour the manager resigned. “This farewell is hard,” said De Rooij. “The team, it is all the world to me. But I did not see another choice.”
At the press conference Rasmussen was apologetic about his “mistakes” but his blunders kept on coming. He said he called the UCI on 2 April 2006 to receive confirmation that a fax regarding his whereabouts form had arrived. He was asked who he spoke to and responded confidently: “Anne Gripper.”
The UCI’s press officer Enrico Carpani received queries as to when the Australian scientist had been appointed as that organisation’s anti-doping manager. Gripper joined it on 17 October 2006; she was definitely not the person Rasmussen spoke to. It was another “mistake” which he later tried to clarify but everything already seemed unbelieveable.
Moments later Cassani’s smouldering anecdote ignited.
During the same press conference Rasmussen stated yet again that he was in Mexico between the Giro and the Tour. Cassani was asked by Danish television reporters to confirm what he had said during the coverage of stage eight, and he did. He then refused to give interviews and tried to distance himself from the story. “I didn’t want to place Rasmussen in such a situation by saying that,” he explained.
Despite never failing a doping control the tide of opinion indicated that the Dane’s reputation was questionable as pressure from the media, organisers and spectators mounted. The day following the farcical proceedings in Pau, at the start of the 16th stage in Orthez, the yellow jersey was booed.
At the sign-on Rasmussen wasn’t properly introduced to the crowd by the Tour’s seasoned speaker Daniel Mangeas. Anticipating the feelings of the fans as the Dane rode from the Rabobank bus, another topic was raised. As Rasmussen signed on Mangeas made only scant mention of him and his 2:23 advantage over second-placed Alberto Contador. It avoided major protestations from the crowd although the race leader was still taunted by jeers as he proceeded to the start line.
The hostile reception from spectators continued throughout the stage to the Col d’Aubisque. “I did get booed at,” said Rasmussen at the finish, only minutes after winning what was considered the toughest stage this year.
“I believe that, for the moment, there’s a lot of frustration amongst the people and in the peloton about what’s going on – about what happened to Vinokourov yesterday – and I think that people are taking their frustration out on me. I understand now what Lance Armstrong went through for seven years.
“The only good thing to say about the Vinokourov case is that it proves that the system is working. To that, I can only add that I have had 14 negative tests so far in this Tour.”
Simultaneously, ASO high flier Gilbert Ysern was on the phone to one of Rabobank’s directors in the Netherlands. The man representing the sponsor realised it was against the company’s commercial interests to have an individual whose reputation was severely in question being associated so prominently with the iconic brand. It was time for action.
Instructions were given to De Rooij to determine whether Rasmussen had indeed been in Mexico during June. The Dutchman called Cassani who confirmed that Rasmussen had been in Italy and the decision to exclude him was made soon afterwards. The manager informed ASO late in the evening, even before he had spoken with the rider himself. The Dane was incredulous. “My chief has gone crazy!”
Rasmussen maintained that he was in Mexico but refused to produce a page in his passport that could easily prove his claims. L’Equipe sent a journalist to Durango, the city where Rasmussen’s in-laws live in Mexico. His brother-in-law Jordi Muñoz said, on the record, that Michael had been there in June. Still, none of the Danish rider’s usual training partners had seen him, although this was countered by Munoz’s wife. “He never goes into town,” she said.
“He usually stays in his room checking his emails.”
Another contradiction. Rasmussen explained that he had missed a test scheduled for June because he didn’t have a computer with him and thus couldn’t update his records.
Had Rasmussen been allowed to complete the Tour de France he would have had to finish the final time trial lower than 42nd place to have lost the yellow jersey, such was the commanding advantage he enjoyed after 16 stages. There’s every chance that, had he continued, he would have won the 94th edition of the world’s most cherished cycling event.
Instead of his performance on the day to Tignes or his time trial in Albi or his powerful climbing on the Aubisque being the defining moments of his 2007 Tour, he leaves another legacy. The downfall of the Climbing Chicken didn’t happen during the race but because of the lies he told. It’s uncertain what the next chapter in the Rasmussen saga will be although one thing is certain. In an effort to make cycling more transparent riders can expect to have every detail of their performance examined by fans and the media, both of whom are eager to reinvigorate the sport’s severely tarnished image.
– Jean-François Quenet
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