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Tour de France carries on as Bennati wins Stage 17

7/26/2007

CASTELSARRASIN, France -- On a day when the Tour de France
got a new leader in Alberto Contador, Michael Rasmussen's mark on
cycling's premier event was all too clear -- an indelible stain.

Rasmussen, the former overall leader from Denmark, was kicked
out of the race by his own Rabobank team a day earlier. His ouster
left a pack of dispirited riders Thursday heading toward Paris,
burdened by the latest jolt to the sport.

"The morale is really down," German rider Markus Fothen said.
"Cycling is on the front page of the newspapers. The sport is
losing. At the moment it is really hard."

No rider wore the yellow jersey in the morning. By late
Thursday, it was on the shoulders of Contador, a 24-year-old
Spaniard who rides for Discovery Channel. The day's 17th stage was
won by Italy's Daniele Bennati.

Contador is three days from victory. The Tour may be years away
from recovering its dignity.

"It is bad for the Tour, the yellow jersey leaving," said
21-year-old Geraint Thomas, the Tour's youngest rider.

And even Contador came under question by one team.

"Contador's performance is suspicious -- very suspicious," AG2R
manager Vincent Lavenu said. "But we can't say anything unless
he's caught in a doping check. I don't trust this team. Maybe one
day we'll know."

After pulling on the yellow jersey, Contador said: "I am clean.
If I weren't, I wouldn't be here."

Contador is followed in the overall standings by Australia's
Cadel Evans, who is 1:53 behind. Levi Leipheimer of the United
States is third, 2:49 back.

In the space of 30 hours, from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday
night, a 104-year-old institution was torn down.

First came the news of Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test for
a banned blood transfusion.

While the main pack was reeling from losing its most popular
rider, it was announced midway through Wednesday's stage that
Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone. The Italian rider
didn't deny it, and he was carted off by police.

With riders winding down late Wednesday night, it was announced
Rasmussen had been booted out.

"Too much, too much," said Fothen, who rides for Gerolsteiner
and finished second in Thursday's 117-mile stage from Pau to
Castelsarrasin.

"Every day it's new news," Fothen said. "Moreni yesterday,
Rasmussen. I'm so tired."

Finding shade by his Caisse d'Epargne team bus, sporting
director Eusebio Unzue appeared defeated. He wrung his hands
together and made a snapping sound as if something had broken
inside him.

"I'm unable to think," Unzue said, adding that he wants "to
arrive as quickly as possible in Paris."

By the roadside, homemade banners reflected the public's
feelings.

"The Tour keeps its libido without EPO," read one in French,
referring to the performance-enhancing drug once at the top of the
menu for cycling cheats. Blood transfusions and testosterone have
replaced EPO.

Missed drug tests, ignored warnings, lies to teammates and
infighting between race organizers and cycling's top brass were
thrown into the Tour pot until it bubbled over.

Pat McQuaid, head of the International Cycling Union, has been
at odds with Tour owner Patrice Clerc and race director Christian
Prudhomme over why Rasmussen was racing if he had missed doping
tests. The feud dates to 2005, when Clerc said the UCI had not done
enough to combat doping.

In an interview with The Associated Press before the Tour,
Prudhomme said the UCI should have received the "Golden Ostrich"
prize for burying its head in the sand.

The bickering hardly helped a sport reeling from a succession of
doping scandals -- from the Operation Puerto investigation into
blood doping that led to Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso being kicked
off last year's race, to 2006 winner Floyd Landis' positive doping
test after winning stage 17.

The announcement of Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test for
testosterone came July 18 -- the test was done June 8. The Danish
cycling federation announced July 19 it had sacked Rasmussen for
missing tests when it had known about it weeks ago.

"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and
his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable," Prudhomme said
Wednesday.

It appeared nothing would stop Rasmussen from reaching Paris in
the yellow jersey. He told a news conference Tuesday he'd called
UCI's anti-doping manager Anne Gripper on April 2. The next day he
was informed Gripper was not in office at the time. Rasmussen
shrugged and said it was someone else.

Speaking to the AP shortly after winning Wednesday's stage
Rasmussen complained of victimization.

"Both the peloton and the public, they're just taking their
frustration out on me now," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said he was in Mexico in June, but a former rider,
Davide Cassani, said he'd seen him in Italy.

"There was, in his behavior, an evident intent to cheat,"
Clerc said.,

Rasmussen subsequently admitted he was in Italy, then told the
opposite to the Danish tabloid B.T.

"This is totally cuckoo," he was quoted as saying Thursday.
"I was not in Italy. Not at all."

Calls by the AP to Rasmussen's Danish and French cell phone
numbers were not immediately returned.