Tour de France Leader Pulled Amid Doping Suspicion
Yet another doping scandal has cast a shadow over Tour de France on Thursday as cyclists head toward a Sunday finish in Paris.
In a 24-hour period, 3 more riders were dismissed from the race on charges of using banned substances.
Wednesday's late news broadcasts erupted with the announcement that lead rider Michael Rasmussen had been thrown out of the race by his Rabobank Team. While not actually caught by a drug test, Rasmussen had been under suspicion for failing to report his whereabouts to drug authorities during pre-tour training.
"We learned that Michael Rasmussen did not go to Mexico to train as he had told us, but was actually in Italy," said Rabobank Team Manager Erik Breukink in a late night news conference.
Just hours before Rasmussen's dismissal, Italian rider Christian Moreni was met at the 16th stage finish line by French gendarmes who took him away for questioning. Moreni's blood sample had come back positive for elevated levels of testosterone.
All this came just one day after star rider Alexander Vinokourov was thrown out of the race for undergoing a blood transfusion.
Cycling officials were clearly reeling from the pace of the dismissals. Jean-Francois Lamour, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, took to the airwaves to defend the tour.
"There are cyclists who do their job and train in transparency and we have to have to have confidence in them," he said on a radio program. "But I can't hide my worry that there will be others who will try to kill this wonderful sport."
On Thursday morning, the news of Rasmussen's fate dominated even President Nicholas Sarkozy's high-profile trip to Libya. One newspaper said the Tour had been decapitated; another's front page was a mock death announcement for the famous race.
But cycling writer Barnaby Chesterman said this year's race is no different from any other. Performance enhancing drugs have been a well-known secret for 30 years; it's just that race organizers are finally waking up to it.
"It's possibly a too little, too late, although they're now starting to fight this after ignoring it for years," he said. "The problem is, what people are now saying is 'how can you have faith in any former winner.'"
Those who have already lost faith in the Tour include two German broadcasters who dropped their coverage, a Swiss newspaper that stopped writing about it and sponsors such as Adidas who are considering pulling the plug.
Up until Rasmussen's dismissal, race organizers stood by their claim that the expulsions proved their heightened checks and drug tests were working.
Tour Director Christian Prudhomme issued a warning yesterday to those still in the race that they were playing "Russian roulette."
The departure of a yellow jersey rider on doping allegations has clearly had a heavy psychological impact in a country where the Tour is a national symbol.
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