Australia's Cadel Evans suggested Thursday he has always harboured doubts over the sporadic performances of Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, who was thrown out of the Tour de France by his Rabobank team on Wednesday.
After a week of their suspicion being aroused over four missed random doping controls, his Dutch outfit finally cracked after learning that Rasmussen had been in Italy in June, and not in Mexico as he had claimed. Rabobank first threw the Dane off the race, then sacked him on Thursday.
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 final kilometres of the mountains stages, will take over the race lead. Ahead of Thursday's slightly undulating stage from Pau to Castelsarrasin, the 30-year-old Evans was 1min 53sec off the Spaniard's pace with American Levi Leipheimer 56sec behind. Saturday's time trial over 55.5km from Cognac to Angoulême will be decisive for all three riders, who are bidding to pull on the yellow jersey.
Evans was happy to move up a place in the general classification, but he admitted the performances of Rasmussen - whom he used to race against in mountain biking - had always intrigued him.
"I first started racing against him in March of 1996 at the Sea Otter classic (mountain bike race) in California, and on that occasion I couldn't go near him," Evans said prior to Thursday's stage. "For three years I raced against him in mountain bikes, and I always finished ahead of him. And then he won the mountain bike world championship title in 1999, in the elite category. And he rode away from everyone.
"I wasn't in that race, because I was in the under-23 (category)."
Evans said he had doubts about the Dane's progression then, and also at the Tour de France. Last year Rasmussen's stage win at La Toussuire helped secure his second consecutive polka dot jersey for the race's best climber. But his winning performance also left 70 riders in the 'grupetto', the bunch who ride at their own slow tempo at the back of the race, on the brink of missing the race's time limit.
"It's strange, his progression. It's just observations I have. What can you say?" added Evans. "It's not even progression. He has one or two good days a year, and last year he nearly put 30 (70 sic) guys out of the time limit. And I heard he had been suffering in the grupetto himself in the Giro d'Italia.
Evans stopped short of saying he was glad the Tour had finally got rid of Rasmussen, however. "I really don't know the truth behind it all. Just because someone has a good performance you should never accuse them of cheating because it could be the result of hard work and good training. But I see what I see."
He added: "I've been beaten by cheats before and I'll be beaten by them again, I'm sure of that, but I'm not worried about it."
© AFP 2007