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TOUR DE FRANCE

Race sent reeling

Team expels leader Rasmussen for breaking out-of-competition drug test rules; Cofidis squad is out after Moreni's positive result.

July 26, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Even in a sport plagued by doping scandals for more than a year, nothing has topped what happened Wednesday.

Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was booted by his team from cycling's greatest pageant -- just four days before the scrawny Dane nicknamed Chicken was expected to cross the finish line wearing the famed yellow jersey.

Though Rasmussen's credentials as a creditable champion have been devalued since his efforts in avoiding out-of-contest drug testing were revealed last week, he had seemingly taken an insurmountable lead by winning the final mountain stage.

But five hours after Rasmussen put on the coveted jersey, his Dutch-based Rabobank team was announcing Rasmussen had been fired.

"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies ... had become unbearable," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.

That was a stark contrast to the scene half a world away in Pasadena, where Mayor Bill Bogaard was celebrating the selection of his city as the finish for the 2008 Amgen Tour of California in February.

Bogaard, surrounded Wednesday by city employees who biked to work, said cycling was a sport that offered good health for participants.

And Tour of California managing director Shawn Hunter remained hopeful about the sport's future in the U.S.

"Cycling is doing the right thing, but it's painful," he said. "In the long haul, I believe the sport will be cleaned up. That's why I think this is a good time to be in."

However, back in France, Wednesday was not a good day for the sport.

Before the Tour de France's 16th stage began, police officers had surrounded the hotel of Italian cyclist Cristian Moreni, who failed a drug test, after which his team withdrew from the Tour. Dozens of cyclists also delayed the start in protest of the continuous string of doping scandals that have roiled the world's biggest cycling event.

Three riders had already failed drug tests during this year's Tour. The first was T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz; the most notable was pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, who was quickly joined by the rest of his Astana team, and then Moreni.

And then came the Rasmussen bombshell.

The 33-year-old, who had stood third in the 2005 Tour before famously careening through a final time trial, had been barred from competing for his country at the upcoming world championships and next year's Olympics because of his failure to report his whereabouts for out-of-competition drug testing.

The information wasn't made public until Rasmussen had taken over the lead of this Tour de France, and there was a crescendo of criticism, most vocally coming from Tour organizers, that Rasmussen should never have been allowed by his team to have started the race in London on July 7.

Rasmussen was more loudly booed than cheered Wednesday even as he fended off attacks from two riders of Discovery Channel, young Spaniard Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa.

The Dane acknowledged hearing the jeers.

"I believe there's a lot of frustration among the people and in the peloton about what's going on," Rasmussen said after his stage win but before his ouster. "About what happened to Vino, since he's not here, people taking their frustrations out on me."

Five hours later, reportedly under pressure from embarrassed Rabobank sponsors, Rasmussen was expelled from the race and fired from the team.

Rabobank spokesman Jacob Bergsma told the Associated Press, "Michael Rasmussen has been sent home for violating internal rules" and added Rasmussen had given the team "incorrect" information on where he was during missed random drug tests May 8 and June 28.

Already the Tour had taken media hits. Two major German television stations quit televising the race after Sinkewitz was booted and on Wednesday a major Swiss newspaper said it would report only on doping information from the Tour, not racing news. The vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Jean-Francois Lamour, told French media that the sport should be eliminated from the Olympics.

As for the Tour of California, the race will go on. Hunter said 20 California cities vied to play host to the start and end of the race -- Palo Alto was chosen as the kickoff city and Pasadena will be the finish line. And Modesto is new to the list of cities that will help play host to the race as it moves north to south.

The hopeful Tour of California promoters offered up a video from the live Versus broadcast of Wednesday's Tour de France as Hunter unveiled the 2008 California route.

Hunter said optimistically that the Tour of California, owned by AEG and sponsored by Amgen, a Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology company, is a "postcard" for the state, a way to showcase its beauty.

Now there is fear among serious cycling fans that there will be nothing left of the sport except to be a tourism prop because of the doping scandals that have been nearly constant for more than a year.

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