The Rasmussen schandal

Michael Rasmussen, the Danish cyclist in the yellow jersey was removed from the Tour the France by his team Rabobank. This story narates about the lying athlete, the compromising team management and the bank that washes its hands of innocence.

If he grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it to the left, Michael Rasmussen thought, he could end it all right here. In the late evening of July 25th 2007, the 33-year-old Danish cyclist of the Rabobank team was being taken away, on the back seat of an inconspicuous blue sedan, to a secret location at the foot of the Pyrenees. Numb with disillusion, Michael Rasmussen stared into the approaching headlights on the narrow Route Nationale. He considered suicide.

Less than six hours ago, his childhood dream had almost come true. On the steep slopes of the Aubisque he had majestically sped away from his sole remaining competitor, the Spanish Alberto Contador. The Tour de France seemed to be his. Until former cyclist and Italian TV-commentator Davide Cassani had declared that he had seen Rasmussen in Italy on June 13th. Until that moment, the Dane had insisted that he had been in Mexico in June.

Theo De Rooij, the director of the Rabobank Cycling Team, immediately suspended the holder of the yellow jersey from the race. Rasmussen had lied, and he had missed doping tests. Ten days of speculation about the integrity of the Danish cyclist ended with a single television interview.

For the second time this evening, Michael Rasmussen dialled the number of Cassani. During their first conversation Rasmussen had still been defiant. ,,Are you a hundred percent sure you saw me?’’, he had asked Cassani. ,,Are you calling me a liar?’’, the Italian replied. Now, Rasmussen knew, the game was over. ,,Davide’’, he whispered.,,They kicked me out of the Tour.’’ Both men started to cry.

This is not just the story of a cyclist who lied, and who lost the Tour de France. This story is also about a compromising director of a large professional cycling team, and about a Dutch triple A-bank that wants to keep its hands clean. This story touches on the underlying causes for the Rasmussen-affair, the biggest scandal in Dutch cycling history: the failure of anti-doping policies, the struggle for power between the managers of cycling, and the mutual distrust in a peloton run amok.

Two weeks ago, Rasmussen announced that he would file a lawsuit against his former employer Rabobank. The Danish cyclist claims that the management of his team, director Theo De Rooij (who stepped down on August 3rd) and team manager Erik Breukink, had known all about his whereabouts. ,,I never lied to my team’’, Rasmussen said during a press conference in November.

If this is true, it presents a serious problem for both the cycling team and its sponsor. Those have become heavily dependent on one another. For more than ten years now, Rabobank has financed a cycling team, which over the years has grown into a major player in professional cycling. The Rabobank Team is a solid organisation that boasts a staff of 120 people, top-riders like Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker, and a blossoming training school for up and coming. Throughout the decade, Rabobank remained one of the few teams untouched by the scandals others suffered in the peloton.

In the beginning of 2007, Rabobank prolonged the sponsorship contract until 2012. Rabo, an association of rural banking co-ops, relishes the publicity and international exposure the cycling team generates. But the successful cooperation has one condition: public confidence – the single most important hallmark of the Rabobank – can never be compromised. ,,If a rider is caught taking doping, we fire him’’, says Piet van Schijndel, member of the board of the bank. ,,And if the whole team is involved, we pull the plug.’’ Michael Rasmussen never tested positive for any forbidden substance.,,But it says enough that he is lying’’, Van Schijndel maintains.

But was Rasmussen lying on his own, or did the team authorize his fraud? The Rabobank team has hired Peter Vogelzang, a former chief of police, to make a ‘fully independent’ inquiry into the matter. His conclusions: both director Theo de Rooij and team manager were ,,seriously negligent’’, but ,,no proof was found of unethical conduct’’. ,,You could say they were sleeping on the job’’, Van Schijndel said during the press presentation of the Vogelzang report.

NRC Handelsblad has talked to key players and has reviewed personal and official documents. One thing which becomes painfully clear is the extent to which the cyclist, the director, the team managers, sports’ directors and finally the bank were mistaken. All knew that professional cycling was undergoing the deepest crisis in its existence. No one realized, however, how narrow the margins between good and bad, between victory and defeat, had become exactly.

It was a beautiful morning in June in Lazise, a picturesque renaissance town in Northern Italy on the shores of the Garda Lake. The man and the woman in the parked car, however were indifferent to the splendid surroundings. The two Doping Control Officers (DCO’s) were intensely observing the front door of a luxury villa. De DCO’s were employees of the sports organisation Swiss Olympic. They had come to take urine samples of Michael Rasmussen for an ‘out of competition test’, on behalf of the Danish anti-doping organisation Anti Doping Denmark. When they finally rang the bell, the door was opened by the housekeeper. ,,She informed us that Mr. Rasmussen left Italy a few weeks ago and is staying in Mexico at the moment‘’, the DCO’s wrote in their report. The DCO also rang Los Locos Bike shop, the business Rasmussen runs in downtown Lazise. ,,His employee confirmed that Mr. Rasmussen is abroad at the moment’’, the report continues. ,,At that moment I stopped the mission.’’

The Swiss officials travelled to Italy in vain, because Rasmussen had misinformed the cycling authorities of his whereabouts. The whereabouts system had been introduced by international cycling association UCI a year and a half earlier to help deter the use of illegal substances. Top riders had to report their exact location, 365 days a year. Any changes in their whereabouts had to be specified in advance. The rigorous system, so the UCI hoped, would make it impossible for riders to evade doping tests. Violations were punished severely. First a cyclist received a ‘written warning’. If he failed to give a satisfactory explanation for his transgression, the written warning was put on the record. Three recorded warnings equalled a positive doping test, followed by a suspension.

Michael Rasmussen had decided that he was going to take this risk. In the past two years, ‘Chicken’, as the skinny Danish rider was called, had won the dotted jersey, the prize for the best rider on IN the mountains. This year, Rasmussen knew, he had a chance to win the Tour itself.

On June 4th his Mexican wife Cariza drove him to the airport of Verona. There he pretended to take a plane to the New World. In reality he secretly returned to Lazise, where he moved in with a friend. Afterwards, the Dane would claim that marital problems prompted his behaviour.

In June, as is widely known in the pack, cyclists who want to have a chance of a top position in the Tour de France medically ‘prepare’ themselves. Medication is necessary to digest three excruciating weeks of cycling, some sports medics say. But a growing number of anti-doping campaigners claim that it involves taking forbidden substances to boost the performance. The market value of many professional riders depends on their performance in the Tour de France.

Fact is that Michael Rasmussen lied about his whereabouts. On June 4th he reported to the UCI that he had left for Mexico. On June 11th he prolonged this fictitious stay until June 29th. In reality he trained in the Italian Dolomites, in the Alps and in the Pyrenees. Because the Danish rider did not inform the UCI by e-mail or fax, but by ordinary mail the cycling association was notified about the mutations in Rasmussen’s whereabouts days, or even weeks later. As a result of this, doping controllers were unable to find Rasmussen for almost the entire month of June.

For Anne Gripper, the head of the anti-doping section in UCI, this crossed the line. On June 29th she gave Rasmussen an official ‘recorded warning’. The Danish rider had already received his first in 2006. His official UCI ‘score’ was now two ‘recorded warnings’. But Rasmussen had also faced two warnings from Anti Doping Denmark, Anne Gripper knew. Four warnings would normally amount to a dopingviolation and a suspension. But the whereabouts-system was still under construction. Moreover, Gripper had her doubts about the legal status of the first recorded warning. She decided to leave it at a stern warning. ,,The situation is critical for you’’, she wrote to the Danish rider. A copy of that letter she e-mailed to Theo De Rooij.

,Not now’, De Rooij must have thought. On the eve of the Tour de France, professional cycling was reeling from one incident into the next: doping affairs and EPO-confessions emerged, old scores were being settled. For years, the UCI and ASO, the French organisers of the Tour de France, were struggling for power. The UCI considered itself to be the government of cycling. The affluent ASO wanted to keep its independence. The ASO held HAD a powerful advantage over the UCI: the right to decide which cycling team could take part in the most important race of the season.

Especially after Operation Puerto, the Spanish blood doping scandal of 2006, professional cycling teams had been at each other’s throats. The French and the Germans announced zero tolerance against doping. Spanish and Italian teams however, hired riders who had been involved in the scandal.

The Rabobank team had tried to steer a middle course. Young riders were subjected to the new regulations. Older cyclists, however, retained a large degree of freedom. Rasmussen (32) belonged to the old generation of the team. The Dane was not close to his colleagues. Relationships with the management were ‘businesslike’. ‘Rasmussen Incorporated’, which relied on success in the Tour de France, was very much a one-man business.

When on June 29th he received the e-mail from the UCI, Theo de Rooij immediately called Anne Gripper. ,,He wanted to know if Rasmussen could start in the Tour de France’’, Gripper recalls. ,,I told him that I did not have an opinion on it, but that the UCI-rules permitted him to start.’’ De Rooij decided to take his Danish top rider to the Tour de France. The alternative scenario – leave Rasmussen home – would have caused a lot of commotion. Nevertheless, the Vogelzang-committee would later condemn De Rooij’s decision as a ‘grave error’. ,,On the basis of the information available to the management of the Rabobank Cycling Team, Rasmussen should not have been permitted to start in the Tour de France.’’

In his report, Vogelzang concluded that after the letter from the UCI on June 29th, De Rooij should have realized that Michael Rasmussen could not possibly have been in Mexico in the entire period from June 4th until June 29th, as he had reported. On June 6th, team manager Erik Breukink had met the Dane in Bergamo. And from June 25th till June 29th the Danish rider was in the Pyrenees – on a training period organised by the Rabobank team. As early as April, Vogelzang revealed, Rasmussen and his team had communicated about the training. ,,I prefer if we could keep this trip quiet’’, the Dane wrote in an e-mail to Erik Breukink, ,,as I am supposed to be in Mexico at the time.’’

Insiders knew what this meant: Rasmussen was going to disappear. De Rooij sent an e-mail in which he warned his Danish rider. ,, I urge you to provide the controlling bodies with the correct whereabouts information! If you want to go training in Mexico just go ahead, it is out of the question that your employer is going to cooperate in some cover up operation.’’ Rasmussen called De Rooij the same day. He only wanted to keep the trip quiet from the international press, he explained.

Rasmussen insists that the team management knew where he was staying in June. ,,On June 6th I discussed with Breukink our preparation for the Tour de France. I said that I was going to preride the stages in the Alps. After that, I would head for the Pyrenees.’’

To NRC Handelsblad, the Dane submitted new evidence to support his version of events. On June 15th, Erik Breukink sent a short text message to Rasmussen’s mobile Phone: ,,Theo will do it tomorrow’’. The next day, Theo De Rooij faxed the information about the stages in the Alps to Rasmussen’s bike shop in Lazise. The rider and his team exchanged more text messages. ,,Training goes well?’’, Breukink wrote on June 24th. The next day Rasmussen flew from Verona to Toulouse for the training stage in the Pyrenees. There, an anxious Theo De Rooij called him. Rasmussen had to sign the new anti-doping charter of the UCI to be able to start in the Tour de France. ,,Michael, where are you?’’, De Rooij asked. ,,The UCI wants to test you.’’

The management of the Rabobank team therefore knew something was wrong concerning Rasmussen’s whereabouts, and had warned the Dane about it more than once. ,,On several occasions this year (April, May, June)’’, De Rooij wrote in a letter to Rasmussen on July 3rd, ,,I have emphasized to you the importance of transmitting the correct whereabouts to the authorities.’’ The director fined his rider 10.000 euro – and let the matter rest.

On July 19th Pat McQuaid was driving his car through Irish hills. The president of the UCI was on his way to the wedding of an old friend. For a few days, he had managed to escape the frenzy of the Tour de France, McQuaid thought. But then his mobile phone rang: Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour was on the line. ,,He was screaming and cursing at me’’, McQuaid remembers: ,,Most of it I didn’t understand because he was using French terminology. But I did apprehend that something was wrong with the Tour de France. I was being accused of all kinds of things.’’

It was only after a Danish journalist phoned, that McQuaid realized what had happened. The Danish cycling Union DCU had made public that Michael Rasmussen, the leader in the Tour de France, was suspended from the Danish national team because of missed doping tests. The news had set the cycling World ablaze. Why, the managers of the Tour de France asked furiously, had the DCU announced it now? The UCI is trying to damage the Tour de France, Prudhomme stated publicly.

In the head office of Rabobank in Utrecht, managers were worried. In the Alps, Rasmussen had unexpectedly taken the yellow jersey. In the years before, the leader in the Tour de France had always come under attack. But this time, the bank managers knew, it was more serious.

The day before, July 18th, the Danish journalists had started asking Theo de Rooij questions. The director of the Rabobank team had immediately called Vincent Pijpers. In times of crises, the head of communication at the head office of Rabobank in Utrecht was the key figure in the communication between the team and the bank. Pijpers immediately called Piet van Schijndel, a member of the board of the bank. This way the top management of the bank was informed about the imminent crisis, 24 hours before the news broke.

On July 20th, in Montpellier, press stampeded the Rabobank bus. Rapidly, De Rooij made his way to France. In the evening after he arrived, he took a second blow: an unconfirmed story that Rasmussen had asked a fellow mountain biker to smuggle blood doping in a shoebox in 2002. Vincent Pijpers spoke on the phone to a nervous Theo de Rooij for the rest of the evening. ,,We told him: this is a crisis, a calamity ‘’, Pijpers said. ,,And we urgently advised him to get a lawyer.’’ The next day, De Rooij engaged attorney Harro Knijff. The day after, the lawyer was sent the e-mail of the UCI dated June 29th.

After consulting Knijff, De Rooij and Pijpers decided to defend their Danish rider. Rasmussen ‘had made a mistake’. But the Dane had been tested on numerous occasions, before and during the Tour. All of these tests had been negative.

Vincent Pijpers claims that not all information was shared with the bank. According to Pijpers, De Rooij said nothing about the training stage in the Pyrenees – a crucial clue that Rasmussen was lying. ,,We asked question after question’’, Pijpers says. ,,But De Rooij was playing down the affair.’’ The account of Pijpers does not fit the public profile of De Rooij: a feeble-minded man who was known for consulting his sponsor about the smallest details. De Rooij refused to comment to NRC Handelsblad about how much the sponsor knew. Even after his resignation, the director is anxious not to put the team in danger.

The directors of the Tour de France – Patrice Clerc, director of the ASO, Gilbert Ysern, his aid, and Tour manager Christian Prudhomme – had tried to dismiss the Rasmussen-affair as a UCI bomb shell. But as the Tour continued, French media became increasingly hostile towards the Dane in the yellow jersey. And there came a strange phone call from the influential former president of the UCI, Hein Verbruggen, to the head office of Rabobank in Utrecht. The bank should know that the UCI could easily have suspended Rasmussen from the race, Verbruggen told Pijpers: according tot the rules of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) the UCI should have done just that. Rabobank ought to be grateful.

Was the UCI trying to cover its retreat? The next day, Pat McQuaid, in an interview with Dutch public television, said that from a legal standpoint nothing prevented Rasmussen from continuing the Tour de France. Up to this moment, McQuaid himself had been very critical of the Dane.

The Rabobank team planned to grant only two interviews with Rasmussen, to the Danish and Dutch television, on the rest day in Pau, on July 24th. But the management of the Tour de France intervened. It ordered the team to give a press conference for all media. The management warned De Rooij. If after the press conference any doubts about the integrity of the Danish rider remained, ASO would take Rasmussen out of the race.

Pat McQuaid claims that ASO also put pressure on the main office of the bank in Utrecht. The logic of the ASO must have been simple. Rasmussen was damaging the Tour de France. If Rabobank wanted to start in the Tour of 2008, they had to act. ,,I heard about several phone calls’’, McQuaid says. ,,And pressuring the sponsor fits the pattern of ASO.’’ Vincent Pijpers denies that the bank was in touch with the ASO, but confirms that the management of the Tour put an ultimatum to De Rooij. ,,ASO was desperate. They told De Rooij: you’d better come up with a full explanation.’’ McQuaid: ,,ASO played a crucial role in taking Rasmussen out the Tour de France.’’

On the morning of July 24th, in the magnificent Palais de Beaumont in Pau, with hundreds of journalists on the edge of their seats, Harro Knijff dismissed the recorded warnings of the UCI as an ‘administrative error’ – the way Rabobank had decided to do. But an ultra-nervous Rasmussen made a small mistake. Who did he talk to at the UCI after his first recorded warning in 2006, a journalist had asked. ,,Anne Gripper’’, Rasmussen answered, not realizing that the head of the anti-doping section wasn’t working there at the time. The next day, the French sports paper L’Équipe trashed the Dane because of this mistake. De Rooij called Gripper. ,,He was desperate’’, she recalls. ,,He was demanding to know with whom Rasmussen had had contact. That was my colleague Mario, but he was in Canada, and could not be reached.”

At the start of the last mountain stage to the Aubisque, in Orthez, a tense De Rooij faced the press. French and German teams had announced that they were going on strike, as a protest against the numerous doping affairs the Tour had already suffered. The night before, the managers of these teams had discussed Rasmussen at length. Rumours had it that the Danish rider had been seen in Italy.

It was an Italian cyclist and television commentator who at half past five, just meters away from the finish line, pulled the trigger. With his eyes cast down to the ground, Davide Cassani repeated in front of the cameras of the Danish National Television what he said at FOR days on end during his live comments for RAI-television: how he had met Rasmussen in Italy on June 13th. When De Rooij was informed about the interview, he called Cassani himself. Then, the furious director confronted Rasmussen with the facts. The Dane confessed. ,,Theo was totally beyond himself’’, Rasmussen recalls. ,,, Now we are fucked’, he screamed. ‘You ruined it for all of us!’’’

Less than five minutes after this conversation, Vincent Pijpers got a ,,determined’’ De Rooij on the phone. ,,Theo said: ‘now I know for sure. Rasmussen was in Italy.’’’ Pijpers advised De Rooij ,,not to make any rash decisions’’. De Rooij had to consult Knijff and the advisory board of the bank. But advisor Van Rijckevorsel demurred from making any decision without consulting the board. At approximately 20:30 pm Piet van Schijndel’s telephone rang. The boardmember spoke the final verdict.

At nine chaos ruled in the bus of the Rabobank team. In his biography, Michael Boogerd later described how Theo de Rooij panicked. The press could arrive at any moment. ,,Now you get out, Rasmussen!’’, he shouted: ,,Out of the bus! Pack your suitcase! We are taking you away!’’

Afterwards, Rabobank would emphasize it had been De Rooij's decision only. From a formal point of view, they were right. But the next day, the head office put out a press release that said Rasmussen had been fired. In reality, De Rooij had only suspended him at that point. Rabobank had decided that it did not want a tarnished yellow jersey. ,,Just imagine that he would have continued’’, Van Schijndel says,. ,,the press would still have written a full page each day.’’

From 1999 to 2005, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times in a row. Three times the American cyclist was discredited for suspicion of using forbidden substances. He was never caught. Armstrong still holds the record for the amount of years he won the Tour de France.

Rasmussen never tested positive for doping either, but he lost everything: his victory in the Tour, his job, and possibly his career. Until this day the UCI has not announced whether the Danish rider will be suspended.

Two years ago things would have been different, the key players of the Rasmussen-affair say. ‘Chicken’ would have finished in Paris: a smiling winner with a small stain. That could have happened in 2005. But not in 2007.

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