Michael Rasmussen is licking his wounds following Bjarne Riis’ eleventh-hour decision not to offer him a contract with Saxo Bank-Sungard.
Following months of negotiation and intense media speculation in Denmark, Riis finally announced his team’s completed roster for 2011 last Tuesday morning. Following the defection of the Danes Matti Breschel, Jakob Fuglsang and Anders Lund to the Schleck’s Luxembourg cycling project, it had been widely expected that Riis would find a spot for the former Tour de France maillot jaune in Denmark’s ‘national’ team. However, despite a groundswell of public support at home, Riis decided to look elsewhere. Speaking to VeloNews from his home in Northern Italy, Rasmussen declared himself “shell-shocked” by the omission;
“It’s a massive blow. I was fully expecting to be with them at their training camp in Puertaventura, and the Danish people were pretty much unanimous in their support …”
Riis’ rejection brings down the curtain on an extraordinary saga which, over the past four months, has captivated the Danish public. Rasmussen, ignominiously expelled while leading the 2007 Tour for a whereabouts infraction, recently emerged from three years’ of legal battles with both UCI and Rabobank, his erstwhile employer. Following an abortive comeback with the Italian Miche team, Cristina Hembo, founder of the Danish watchmaker Cristina London, invited the 36-year-old climber to ride a criterium alongside Alberto Contador in Herning, Bjarne Riis’ home town. The sight of Rasmussen, exiled in Italy for over a decade, induced near delirium amongst a Danish public convinced he had been cheated out of a victory parade on the Champs Èlysées. Over 30,000 turned up to watch, moving Hembo to offer to underwrite Rasmussen’s salary to any ProTour team prepared to engage him.
Hembo’s munificence made headline news in Denmark. TV2 invited both her and Rasmussen to participate in Wild med dans, a primetime Friday night celebrity dance spectacular. Rasmussen at first rejected the idea but, when an expected ride at the 2010 Vuelta failed to materialize, signed up. Warmly welcomed by the Danes, he performed well in the show, and in so doing re-invented his public persona. Hitherto perceived as detached and humourless, Rasmussen’s fragility won Danish hearts and minds;
“There was an internet poll in Denmark just last week, and 91 percent said I deserve a second chance,” he said. “The problem, though, is that this process has been ongoing for months. If Bjarne had given me an outright rejection at the outset I’d have looked elsewhere, but the whole thing seemed to moving towards one inevitable conclusion.”
Definitely maybe …
In launching his autobiography a fortnight ago, Riis stated that wouldn’t be offering Rasmussen a contract. He added, however, that he believed the former polka-dot jersey had changed his outlook and attitude, and was worthy of a second chance elsewhere. The following day he recanted, offering that he’d been misquoted; he hadn’t rejected Rasmussen at all, but rather had yet to decide either way. A furious round of meetings between Hembo, Rasmussen’s agent Moreno Nicoletti and Riis seemed to have tipped the balance, but ultimately Riis was unable — or unwilling — to deliver. Rasmussen believes he acted throughout in good faith, but is perplexed by the outcome;
“I can’t tell you why he said no, because I don’t know myself. I know that Bjarne had a lot of hurdles to cross because of what went on after the Tour — the sponsors, ASO, UCI, RCS etc. — but my understanding is that there weren’t any political issues remaining. He wished me luck and re-affirmed his belief that I deserve another chance, but said that I “can’t effect” his decision.”
Riis’ rebuff sees Rasmussen once more at a crossroads in his life. With most teams having already established their personnel for the coming season, it’s unlikely he will find a place so late in the day.
“We’re still working, and still hopeful. I’ll admit that I’d staked a lot on it emotionally, so this is really, really hard to swallow. If nothing is forthcoming there is an idea to work with Cristina London towards creating a new Danish team. Obviously that process requires a lot of time and money, and it’s inconceivable that we can get it off the ground for 2011.”
There is speculation in Denmark that Rasmussen’s chances were undermined by the ongoing case against Alberto Contador. Like many banks Saxo Bank has been through a torrid time of late, its profits and reputation severely tainted. The signing of Contador, now looking down the barrel of a long suspension, looks increasingly like a backwards step in PR terms. It may be that Riis, despite his labored assurances to the contrary, thought his countryman a risk not worth taking. For all that Rasmussen is distraught that another door has closed, he refuses to cave in.
“Whatever happens I’ve done all I could, and I think that’s important. Whether or not I make it back to the Tour this whole thing has changed a lot of people’s minds about me. It’s taught me that people are basically positive, and that I’ve been right in believing. If I don’t make it back then so be it. I’m no longer interested in fighting the system, and I’m resolved to be optimistic about the future …”
Michael Rasmussen, for all that he still believes himself the rightful winner of the 2007 Tour de France, is done with looking backwards.
“I made a number of mistakes in going to war with powerful people within cycling, and in allowing myself to be perceived as ruthless and cold. I’ll never convince everyone that I’m not the monster they thought I was, but people are at last starting to realize that I’m a normal person …”
The Chicken, it seems, is moving into the light …
Editor’s note: Herbie Sykes is an English journalist living in Turin, Italy.