GOURETTE, France – Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was removed from the race by his Rabobank team after winning Wednesday's stage, the biggest blow yet in cycling's doping-tainted premier event.
"Michael Rasmussen has been sent home for violating (the team's) internal rules," Rabobank spokesman Jacob Bergsma told The Associated Press by phone. The team also suspended him.
• Tour de France Rider Cristian Moreni Fails Doping Test
The expulsion, which Bergsma said was ordered by the Dutch team's sponsor, was linked to "incorrect" information that Rasmussen gave to the team's sports director over his whereabouts last month. Rasmussen missed random drug tests on May 8 and June 28, saying he was in Mexico. But a former rider, Davide Cassani, told Denmark's Danmarks Radio on Wednesday that he had seen Rasmussen in Italy in mid-June.
Only once before in the 104-year-old Tour has the race leader been expelled. In 1978, Belgian rider Michel Pollentier, trying to evade doping controls after winning a stage at the Alpe d'Huez in the Alps, was caught with an intricate tube-and-container system that contained urine that was not his, said Tour historian Jean-Paul Brouchon.
There was no immediate reaction from Rasmussen, who has led since July 15 and looked set to win the race which ends on Sunday in Paris.
But just hours before he was removed from the Tour, the 33-year-old Dane spoke to The AP — after a doping control following his win in stage 16 — and said he was being victimized.
"Of course I'm clean," Rasmussen said. "Like I said, I've been tested 17 times now in less than two weeks. Both the peleton and the public, they're just taking their frustration out on me now. I mean, all I can say is that by now I had my test number 17 on this Tour and all of those have come back negative. I don't feel I can do anymore than that."
But as Rasmussen crept toward what would have been his first Tour victory, race directors repeatedly said he never should have been allowed to take the start on July 7 in London, England.
"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told The AP, reacting to Rasmussen's withdrawal.
The head of cycling's governing body applauded the decision.
"My immediate reaction is, why didn't they do this at the end of June, when they had the same information," International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid told The AP.
"The team decided to pull him out — that's their prerogative. I can only applaud that. It's a zero-tolerance policy and it's a lesson for the future."
With Rasmussen out, Spanish rider Alberto Contador of the Discovery Channel moves into the race lead.
"It's in no way a celebration on our end. It's the third piece of bad news," said Discovery Channel spokesman P.J. Rabice. "It reflects badly on our sport."
After the Tour's upbeat start in London, when millions of spectators lined streets to watch, bad news — nearly all of it related to doping — quickly dominated.
German rider Patrick Sinkewitz crashed into a spectator then was revealed to have failed a drug test in training before the Tour. Star Alexandre Vinokourov was sent home after testing positive for a banned blood transfusion. On Wednesday, as Rasmussen was riding toward his stage 16 win, the Cofidis squad confirmed that its Italian rider Cristian Moreni failed a doping test, prompting the withdrawal of the entire squad.
Rasmussen's ejection spared Tour organizers having a rider clouded by suspicion standing atop the winner's podium on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday. Rasmussen had a lead of 3 minutes, 10 seconds over Contador which, barring an upset, should have been sufficient to carry him through the last four days of racing to victory.
Race officials said on Tuesday they would have stopped Rasmussen from taking part had they known about the missed tests before the start.
Although Rasmussen has not tested positive, some fellow cyclists and many race observers were baffled by his performance in a time trial last Saturday, when he stunned the field by finishing 11th — good enough to retain his overall lead. Lacking the power that usually makes for good time-trialing, Rasmussen had been expected to founder in the event — as he had at the 2005 Tour, when he fell off his bike twice in a time trial, dashing his hopes of a podium finish.
That time trial and the way he has fended off rivals in the mountains with apparent ease added to the skepticism about the rider.
Fans booed him at the start of Wednesday's stage.
Denmark's cycling union said last week he had been kicked off the national team for missing drug tests before the Tour.
Tom Lund, chairman of the Danish Cycling Union, said on Wednesday that Rabobank has done "the right thing because it is a situation that no serious team cannot live with."
"It is an unfortunate situation for Danish cycling, for international cycling," he told The AP.
Bergsma said the Rabobank team had not decided whether its other riders would take the start on Thursday in Pau. It's next best rider was Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands, lying 16th and about 28 minutes behind Contador.