CASTELSARRASIN, France (AP) – On a day when the Tour de France got a new leader in Alberto Contador, Michael Rasmussen’s mark on cycling’s premier event was all too clear – an indelible stain.
Rasmussen, the former overall leader from Denmark, was kicked out of the race by his own Rabobank team a day earlier. His ouster left a pack of dispirited riders Thursday heading toward Paris, burdened by the latest jolt to the sport.
“The morale is really down,” German rider Markus Fothen said. “Cycling is on the front page of the newspapers. The sport is losing. At the moment it is really hard.”
No rider wore the yellow jersey in the morning. By late Thursday, it was on the shoulders of Contador, a 24-year-old Spaniard who rides for Discovery Channel. The day’s 17th stage was won by Italy’s Daniele Bennati.
Contador is three days from victory. The Tour may be years away from recovering its dignity.
“It is bad for the Tour, the yellow jersey leaving,” said 21-year-old Geraint Thomas, the Tour’s youngest rider.
And even Contador came under question by one team.
“Contador’s performance is suspicious – very suspicious,” AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu said. “But we can’t say anything unless he’s caught in a doping check. I don’t trust this team. Maybe one day we’ll know.”
After pulling on the yellow jersey, Contador said: “I am clean. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
Contador is followed in the overall standings by Australia’s Cadel Evans, who is 1:53 behind. Levi Leipheimer of the United States is third, 2:49 back.
In the space of 30 hours, from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday night, a 104-year-old institution was torn down.
First came the news of Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive test for a banned blood transfusion.
While the main pack was reeling from losing its most popular rider, it was announced midway through Wednesday’s stage that Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone.
The Italian rider didn’t deny it, and he was carted off by police.
With riders winding down late Wednesday night, it was announced Rasmussen had been booted out.
“Too much, too much,” said Fothen, who rides for Gerolsteiner and finished second in Thursday’s 117-mile stage from Pau to Castelsarrasin.
“Every day it’s new news,” Fothen said. “Moreni yesterday, Rasmussen. I’m so tired.”
Finding shade by his Caisse d’Epargne team bus, sporting director Eusebio Unzue appeared defeated. He wrung his hands together and made a snapping sound as if something had broken inside him.
“I’m unable to think,” Unzue said, adding that he wants “to arrive as quickly as possible in Paris.”
By the roadside, homemade banners reflected the public’s feelings.
“The Tour keeps its libido without EPO,” read one in French, referring to the performance-enhancing drug once at the top of the menu for cycling cheats. Blood transfusions and testosterone have replaced EPO.
Missed drug tests, ignored warnings, lies to teammates and infighting between race organizers and cycling’s top brass were thrown into the Tour pot until it bubbled over.
Pat McQuaid, head of the International Cycling Union, has been at odds with Tour owner Patrice Clerc and race director Christian Prudhomme over why Rasmussen was racing if he had missed doping tests. The feud dates to 2005, when Clerc said the UCI had not done enough to combat doping.
In an interview with The Associated Press before the Tour, Prudhomme said the UCI should have received the “Golden Ostrich” prize for burying its head in the sand.
The bickering hardly helped a sport reeling from a succession of doping scandals – from the Operation Puerto investigation into blood doping that led to Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso being kicked off last year’s race, to 2006 winner Floyd Landis’ positive doping test after winning stage 17.
The announcement of Patrik Sinkewitz’s positive test for testosterone came July 18 – the test was done June 8. The Danish cycling federation announced July 19 it had sacked Rasmussen for missing tests when it had known about it weeks ago.
“We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable,” Prudhomme said Wednesday.
It appeared nothing would stop Rasmussen from reaching Paris in the yellow jersey. He told a news conference Tuesday he’d called UCI’s anti-doping manager Anne Gripper on April 2. The next day he was informed Gripper was not in office at the time. Rasmussen shrugged and said it was someone else.
Speaking to the AP shortly after winning Wednesday’s stage Rasmussen complained of victimization.
“Both the peloton and the public, they’re just taking their frustration out on me now,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said he was in Mexico in June, but a former rider, Davide Cassani, said he’d seen him in Italy.
“There was, in his behavior, an evident intent to cheat,” Clerc said.,
Rasmussen subsequently admitted he was in Italy, then told the opposite to the Danish tabloid B.T.
“This is totally cuckoo,” he was quoted as saying Thursday. “I was not in Italy. Not at all.”
Calls by the AP to Rasmussen’s Danish and French cell phone numbers were not immediately returned.
Associated Press Writers Jamey Keaten, John Leicester and Jean-Luc Courthial all contributed to this report.