City that hosts Fridays time trial has been on a doping ley line, a focal point for scandal, for almost two decades
The foie gras, strawberries and red wine have long been cleared away and in a deserted press tent in Albi, Michael Rasmussen is talking about the time he was kicked off the 2007 Tour de France with final victory in Paris in sight. In a new book, The Yellow Jersey, Rasmussen describes the humiliation and desperation of fleeing the 2007 Tour under cover of darkness after his lies over his anti-doping whereabouts status caught up with him.
Bundled into a rental car at midnight by his team boss, just hours after celebrating victory in the yellow jersey on the Col dAubisque, he was left alone in a remote bed and breakfast at the foot of the Pyrenees, where he contemplated suicide. I walked around and look for some way to hang myself, the Dane recalled. If Id had a gun I would have shot myself. It was almost unbelievable what they did to me considering all that I had done for them.
They were his sponsor Rabobank, a team that later imploded under the weight of serial scandal. The sport didnt become any cleaner that day, he says as warm evening sun floods the room. In fact, it became more dirty. What happened to me was more about brands and marketing and saving reputations.
On Friday the Tour returns to Pau, the scene of Rasmussens nocturnal humiliation, for the 2019 Tours pivotal individual time trial. The city at the foot of the Pyrenees has been on a doping ley line, a focal point for scandal, for almost two decades.
Before Rasmussen it was the Tours bete noire, Lance Armstrong, who faced down his accusers in 2001 in a press conference room in Paus Palais Beaumont, denying all allegations and scoffing at the suggestion that his success was fuelled by doping. When the Tour paused in Pau in 2007, Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov quit in disgrace after testing positive for blood doping, only a couple of days after an unexpected time trial victory had been hailed by LEquipe as Le Courage de Vino.
There is a long list of doping scandals centred on Pau. In 2012, Frank Schleck left the Tour there after a positive test, while Juan Jos Cobo, winner in the 2008 Tours stage from Pau to Hautacam, has just been stripped of his own overall victory in the 2011 Vuelta a Espaa, in favour of Chris Froome. But 20 years after Armstrongs first win, where does cycling stand now? Rasmussen is not alone in his continuing scepticism. As long as theres the possibility to get an advantage, somebody will be doing it, he said, and the possibilities are there.
In July 1999, when Armstrong took the first of his seven Tour wins, a French rider called Christophe Bassons was one of the few voices in a submissive peloton to be raised in protest. The Texan, riled by Bassons outspokenness, rounded on him, telling him to shut his mouth or go home.
The omerta still exists in cycling, Bassons, who now works in anti-doping in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, says. Nobody wants to speak out but thats normal. They all have their secrets and most of the riders hope to move to working for TV or radio or driving a VIP guest car when they retire. Today,I dont think that things have changed that much. The will to cheat is still present, its just harder to pull it off than before.
Rasmussen admits that anti-doping in cycling is still lagging behind where it needs to be. I do believe that things are better but not that doping has gone away. Its not in the nature of sport. When you know that you have more Olympic medals won by non-asthmatics, it shows , it would be nice to think that healthy people can beat sick people, but thats not the case at the Olympic Games.