Two Tour de France doping scandals in as many days were nudged temporarily to the side on Wednesday after race leader Michael Rasmussen was sensationally kicked out by his own Rabobank team.
The 33-year-old Danish climbing specialist has been at the centre of doping speculation since it was revealed last week that he missed four random doping controls over the past 18 months.
Despite the furore caused by the missed tests, Rabobank on Tuesday voiced their support for their top rider. But they changed their minds 24 hours later when it emerged that Rasmussen had lied to them about his whereabouts in June.
"He broke team rules," said Jacob Bergsma, the team spokesman.
A former two-time winner of the race's polka dot jersey, Rasmussen has not tested positive for any banned substances.
But he has aroused plenty of suspicion on the race in the past week with incomplete, and often confusing explanations as to why he had failed to inform the authorities of his whereabouts prior to four separate random doping controls.
The breaking point for Rabobank was when they discovered Wednesday that Rasmussen had been in Italy in June, and not in Mexico, where he sometimes lives with his Mexican wife, as he had claimed. He had been in Italy where he was recognised by Davide Cassani, a former rider turned television pundit.
"Michael Rasmussen was not in Mexico in June as he said he was. He did not provide the team with the correct information of his whereabouts," added Bergsma. "As a result, it has been decided that he will not start the race tomorrow."
Rasmussen was subsequently fired from the team on Thursday morning, according to Danish news agency Ritzau.
"He lied to me, that is the chief reason (for sacking him)," said team manager Theo de Rooy. "There is no sign of him having been doped. It is simply a breach of trust.
"I found out that he had not been in Mexico but in Italy instead," added de Rooy, who had steadfastly supported Rasmussen till Wednesday.
Rabobank continues Tour
Rabobank informed Tour organisers before the start of Thursday's stage that it planned to let its seven remaining riders continue racing, their sporting director Erik Breukink confirmed.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme, speaking at a specially convened press conference before the start of Thursday's stage, said: "Rasmussen's exit is the best thing that can happen to the Tour. The race will start without him and the yellow jersey will be given out after the stage."
Commenting on Rabobank's decision to kick the Dane out Prudhomme said: "The lack of clarity became too much for Rabobank. When Rasmussen gave a press conference his answers were too vague and aroused suspicion in his team."
On Wednesday France's number one team, Cofidis, pulld out of the race after it was revealed that Italian Cristian Moreni (Cofidis) had tested positive for testosterone.
A day earlier the Astana team of pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) was thrown out of the race after Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping following his victory on stage 13's time trial in Albi.
Prudhomme, asked why Rabobank had not been forced to pull out like Cofidis and Astana, replied: "Rabobank are starting the race. In other teams there have been positive doping tests but not for Rasmussen's team.
"Astana and Cofidis acted accordingly, they took their responsibilities. The race will go on for the rest of the riders and we believe it would be an insult to them to stop the race. We believe the general classification is much better now than it was."
McQuaid applauds decision
International Cycling Union (UCI) chief Pat McQuaid applauded the Rabobank team's decision to pull race leader Michael Rasmussen out of the Tour de France on Wednesday. But McQuaid said he wondered why the Dutch outfit had waited so long before acting on information about the Dane having missed four random doping controls, which they knew about prior to the race.
"I wonder why they did not make the decision in June when they had the information (about the missed tests)," said McQuaid. "However it shows a zero tolerance policy, and I can only applaud it."
McQuaid had said earlier this week however that since Rasmussen had "not committed any doping offences" he was free to continue on the race.
Contador takes over
Rasmussen's exit came only hours after he had claimed his second stage win this year, which further boosted his hopes of becoming only the second Dane to win the race's fabled jersey.
Denmark's Bjarne Riis won the Tour de France in 1996, but ironically he is set to be stripped of that accolade after admitting he used the banned blood booster EPO (erythrpoietin) during his career.
In the wake of Rasmussen's exit, Discovery Channel's 24-year-old Spanish climber Alberto Contador, one of the few riders able to keep pace with him in the mountains, will take over the race lead. Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) will move up to second overall, at 1min 53secs.
Thursday and Friday's stages will likely not be contested by the yellow jersey rivals, meaning Saturday's time trial, over 55.5km from Cognac to Angouleme, is likely to decide the race winner.
Here is Bikeradar's stage 16 podcast recap, recorded prior to the late-breaking news of Rasmussen's dismissal.
© Bikeradar & AFP 2007