The controversy surrounding Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen is just like the Festina doping scandal of 1998 all over again, according to one "gutted" French team manager.
Rasmussen and his team Rabobank have been under increasing pressure since the Danish Cycling Union (DCU) revealed he had been given formal warnings for missing two random doping controls this year. The DCU banned Rasmussen from representing Denmark, and it later emerged he had already been warned twice by the International Cycling Union (UCI) for missing two separate random tests in the past 18 months.
Rasmussen, a former two-time winner of the race's King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey, has not tested positive for any doping violations. But while he claims he simply made an "administrative error" in forgetting to inform the authorities of his whereabouts, his defiant lead of the race is giving organisers a headache.
For some, the situation is just like 1998 - when the race was almost brought to its knees after a soigneur (team assistant) with the Festina team was discovered with a car boot full of banned substances, including the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin).
"It's just like 1998 all over again," said former professional Martial Gayant, who coaches the Française des Jeux team. "The sport's credibility is ruined. I'm gutted."
Gayant said the performances on Sunday of Discovery Channel's Contador and Rasmussen, when the pair respectively clocked 44:08 and 44:09 for the 15.9km climb to the Plateau de Beille, were suspect.
Both times beat Lance Armstrong's mark for his climbs to Beille in 2002 (45:43) and 2004 (45:30). Deceased Italian Marco Pantani, whose career has been tainted by doping suspicion, set a record of 43:30 for the climb on its inaugural appearance in 1998.
"When you've got times that approach those of pre-1998, obviously you've got to be skeptical," said Gayant, who believes that despite some teams making efforts to rid the sport of doping, others are just not taking heed.
"We all thought cycling was at a turnaround, but the battle (against doping) is still going on," he added. "I don't see things changing. The scourge (doping) is haunting us, we saw that in the stage to Plateau de Beille (Sunday)."
Tour director Christian Prudhomme told AFP on Saturday that he was angry at the fact that Rabobank, who knew of Rasmussen's missed tests, informed no-one before the race. "We would have made the Rabobank team face up to their responsibilities," he said, suggesting they would have lost their invitation.
"We're not all pulling in the same direction," added Gayant, who nonetheless feels an ongoing feud between the UCI and Tour organisers is only benefiting the cheats.
"The sport's authorities are trying to rein certain people in and, on the opposite end, there's the race organisers. The grey area in the middle is convenient for certain teams."
He feels the Tour de France should simply invite those teams who openly demonstrate that they are clean. "If the Tour wants to safeguard its image, it should invite only those teams who are not going to cause problems," he said. "The race would likely lose money, television rights and some media. But if you want to build from new, you have to start from scratch."
McQuaid: Rasmussen controversy bad for cycling's image
World cycling chief Pat McQuaid said on Monday the controversy surrounding Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen is bad for the image of the sport. But the UCI president denied making declarations which suggested an eventual Tour de France triumph for the Dane would be negative for the sport.
"I did not say that, all I said was that all the controversy and media speculation surrounding Rasmussen is bad for cycling," McQuaid told AFP by telephone. "Rasmussen has not violated any doping rules. As it stands now, there is no proof that he is involved in any doping.
"He has been tested several times before the Tour and several times during it."
Team cars searched
Meanwhile on Monday, several team vehicles participating in this year's Tour de France were searched by customs officers, a journalist at the scene reported.
Rabobank, the team of race leader Michael Rasmussen, the Discovery Channel, Astana and CSC were targeted in the operation, according to the same source.
© AFP 2007