CASTRES, France (AP) – Like a cyclist who can’t shake his pursuers, the Tour de France continues to be dogged by the cloud of doping.
Race leader Michael Rasmussen became the latest rider to face scrutiny Friday when he had to answer why he had been kicked off the national team for failing to report his whereabouts for drug-testing purposes. “I do admit that I’ve committed an administrative error,” Rasmussen said. Asked how much the expulsion mattered to him, the 33-year-old held a thumb and forefinger narrowly apart and said: “How about this much?”
The episode took the spotlight away from Friday’s 12th stage, won by Tom Boonen of Belgium in a sprint.
Rasmussen said he had been tested out of competition in June, and the results were negative.
“I have no positive doping tests, and that’s it,” he said. “This is blown out of proportion. … It’s a matter of misinformation.”
Doping allegations, investigations and admissions have tarnished cycling’s image over the last year – and they haven’t let up during the race.
Germany’s cycling federation said Wednesday that T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz, who had been riding in the Tour until he was injured Sunday, had tested positive for excessive levels of testosterone during a team training ride in early June.
International rules require cyclists to keep officials informed of their whereabouts for possible unannounced doping checks. They can send word by e-mail, text message, or mail.
Cycling officials said Friday that Rasmussen missed two drug tests by Denmark’s anti-doping agency in May and June, and he didn’t respond to two warnings from the International Cycling Union since April 2006.
Three no-shows to either the UCI or the Danish agency would be considered equivalent to a positive test and lead to a ban.
Rasmussen said he had sent a letter from Italy, where he resides. He said he didn’t have a computer in Mexico, where he was when Danish anti-doping officials came knocking at his home.
“You can’t blame the postal system,” said Jesper Worre, director of the Danish cycling union. Not having a computer is “his problem. You can’t use that as an excuse.”
Many riders have complained that the stringent requirements to check in are a hassle, or that the cycling union’s oversight system is not foolproof.
“To be perfectly honest, the UCI whereabouts system is not up to scratch,” British rider David Millar said. “If it’s just sending pieces of paper and a fax you can easily slip through the system.
“It’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt because all these systems are still being put into place,” said Millar, who returned from a two-year doping ban last year and has urged the sport to clean up.
The suspicions will be swirling Saturday as Rasmussen, a self-described “pure climber,” attempts to hold off challengers for the yellow jersey in a 33.6-mile time trial, a race against the clock that isn’t his strength.
Rasmussen finished safely in the trailing pack Friday along with his biggest rivals. He is 2:35 ahead of second-place Alejandro Valverde and 2:39 ahead of Iban Mayo in third.
The next five days will are likely to provide the biggest shakeout so far in the three-week race. Sunday brings the start of three mountain stages in the Pyrenees. The race finishes in Paris on July 29.
Other expected challengers for Rasmussen include Cadel Evans of Australia, who is fourth, 2:41 back; Andreas Kloeden of Germany, 3:50 back in seventh place; and Levi Leipheimer of the United States, 3:53 behind and in eighth overall.
“Rasmussen is still out ahead, but there are 10 or 11 riders still close together,” said Dirk Demol, a sporting director for Leipheimer’s Discovery Channel team. “The difficult stages start tomorrow, with the time trial.”
Associated Press Writers Jerome Pugmire and Jean-Luc Courthial contributed to this report.