Rasmussen leaves media, officials scratching their heads

CASTRES, France -- A fistfight nearly broke out around the Rabobank team bus Friday morning as reporters jostled to hear what the Tour de France's overall leader had to say.

Moments later, police formed a human chain around Danish rider Michael Rasmussen as he slowly, stoically pedaled along underneath the stately trees in the central plaza on his way to the official sign-in ceremony in the southern French city of Montpellier, pursued by a small mob of media.

And that was just the beginning of Rasmussen's day, in which he kept the race lead but may have lost considerable ground in the public eye as a growing oil slick of allegations and suspicious actions spread on the road ahead of him.

The first spill came late Thursday night when Danish media outlets reported that the Danish cycling federation was excluding Rasmussen from the team that will compete in the World Championships in Germany this fall, and from next year's Olympic squad. Federation officials cited Rasmussen's failure to file paperwork specifying his whereabouts for anti-doping authorities, who require the notification to perform unannounced tests.

Theo de Rooij, manager of the Netherlands-based Rabobank team, told Dutch reporters team management knew about the warnings and had been keeping close tabs on Rasmussen. Tour president Patrice Clerc said he wondered about Rasmussen's "spikes in performance," the most recent of which came in the Tour's first uphill finish last Sunday in the Alps -- a solo breakaway that put Rasmussen in the lead.

And a former friend and training partner of Rasmussen's decided to go public after five years of silence, telling VeloNews.com on Friday that the rider tried to trick him into smuggling a blood doping product from Colorado to Europe in a shoe box in 2002. Rasmussen acknowledged he knew the name of his accuser, one-time amateur mountain biker Whitney Richards, who now lives in Italy, but Rasmussen added he "cannot confirm" details of the story.

All of this news came in the absence of a positive doping test, and much of it raised more questions than it answered.

In other words, it was business as usual at the Tour de France. Tie a yellow jersey around the old oak tree. The dream of a Tour free of doping controversies hasn't come home yet.

Despite the hubbub around him Friday morning, Rasmussen told reporters he felt "calm and relaxed," and called the missed paperwork deadlines "a minor deal" and an "administrative error" for which he took responsibility. "I feel this has been blown out of proportion," he said. "I have not missed any doping test and that's it."

Clerc said late Friday that event organizers had no justification at this point to throw Rasmussen out of the race. Last year, when several top riders including Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were linked -- correctly, as it turned out -- to the Operacion Puerto doping investigation in Spain in the days leading up to the race, it was not the Tour which banned them from the start line, but their own teams.

However, Clerc and race director Christian Prudhomme both spoke forcefully about the timing of the revelations.

Rasmussen is said to have received several warnings from Danish cycling officials and from the UCI, cycling's governing body. The World Anti-Doping Agency specifies that an athlete who receives three warnings from the same body will be sanctioned as if he had a positive test, and the UCI had put him on notice that he could not afford another warning.

The two-time winner of the Tour's polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey is married to a Mexican citizen, and had been training in that country at altitude this spring. Rasmussen claimed Friday his latest paperwork violation was due to a letter he sent that was never received, and added that he has been out of touch while at the race because he does not bring along a computer.

Prudhomme spoke before the stage start in a tent in the mobile start village, where a hundred reporters crammed into an area about the size of a living room, and curious fans hung on the chain-link fence outside. One person climbed up and tried to dangle a camera into the interview area by its strap and banged five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault in the head. Hinault swatted the camera away angrily.

"Why now?" Prudhomme dramatically declared in a prepared statement. "Why wait until the 19th of July when Rasmussen has the yellow jersey on his shoulders to give all these details? Why not talk before the start of the Tour? Why speak now for events that will take place at the end of September for the World Championships, and next year for the Olympics? Who profits from the crime?"

He then left without taking questions.

There are a variety of subtexts beneath the surface of Rasmussen's troubles. One is his history of feuding with the Danish federation. Another is the UCI's infighting with Amaury Sports Organisation, the parent company that owns the Tour.

Both Clerc and Prudhomme strongly implied that there might be an effort afoot to damage the Tour's already weakened credibility. This is the second incident of curious timing regarding a doping-related issue during this year's race.

Earlier this week, the T-Mobile team was informed that German rider Patrik Sinkewitz had an A sample test positive for testosterone on June 8 in an unannounced test by his country's national anti-doping agency. Team officials did not know why the test took six weeks to process, but under T-Mobile's code of conduct, had they known before the Tour, Sinkewitz would have been suspended rather than taking part in the race. Sinkewitz's positive has not yet been confirmed by the B sample analysis.

Rasmussen has undergone at least three blood tests in the last three weeks. One was June 30, when he competed in the Danish national road championships. Two more, on July 5 and July 17, were screenings conducted at the Tour that measure hematocrit, or red blood cell levels, but are not anti-doping tests per se. He passed all of them.

Prudhomme said Friday morning that Rasmussen had been subjected to urine tests on each of the four days he has been in the yellow jersey. He would have been tested again Friday night, since he kept the lead. No positive results have been reported to Tour officials.

The Tour director said he wanted to know whether there were "other elements, other circumstances" known to Danish officials that would have prompted their decision to bump Rasmussen from two prestigious international competitions.

Rasmussen appeared briefly before reporters again Friday evening and was asked if the cloud of suspicion was distracting him on the eve of the first long individual time trial, an event in which the self-described "pure climber" has embarrassed himself in the past.

"About this much," he said, smiling and holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart.

Yet it seems unlikely that fielding all these questions could be performance-enhancing.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.