Chaos and disgrace enveloped the Tour de France on Wednesday after the overall leader, Michael Rasmussen, was removed from the race by his Rabobank team, which said he lied about where he was training this spring when he missed at least three drug tests.
The announcement came hours after Rasmussen, who had already been riding under suspicion of doping, won the 16th stage Wednesday and appeared to be in position to claim the championship of cycling's most prestigious event on Sunday in Paris. The news also came shortly after the withdrawal of a second team in two days from the tour amid a widening doping scandal that has rocked the sport since last year's champion, Floyd Landis, was found to have failed a drug test on his way to the title.
This year's tour has now lost at least two teams, the winners of four stages and the overall leader. But organizers have so far said the event will not be canceled. Doing so, said Patrice Clerc, the president of the company that organizes the tour, would mean victory for the riders who violate the rules.
Rasmussen, a 33-year-old Danish rider, was awarded the race leader's yellow jersey for nine consecutive days, and, with his second stage victory of this tour, he extended his lead to more than three minutes over his closest competitor. Almost from the time he gained the lead, however, questions have dogged him about his training and about why he missed at least three drugs tests this year after anti-doping officials could not locate him.
The new overall leader will be Alberto Contador, a Spanish rider for the Discovery Channel team.
Many fans were fed up with Rasmussen. They greeted him with as many boos as cheers when he was introduced at the start of the stage on Wednesday, and he was booed as he rode along the course and at the finish. He said the public was "just taking their frustration out on me now.''
Just hours before he was kicked out, Rasmussen said he was being victimized.
"Of course I'm clean," he said.
Patrik Sinkewitz, a German rider for the T-Mobile team, which has heavily promoted its internal anti-doping regimen, was told during the race that he had failed a drug screening administered by German anti-doping officials weeks before the race began.
Two teams have withdrawn this week. The Cofidis team, based in France, withdrew after Wednesday's stage when it was announced that an Italian rider for the team, Cristian Moreni, had tested positive for manufactured testosterone after the 11th stage.
That followed by one day the withdrawal of the Astana team after its leader, Vinokourov, failed a blood test after the first of his two stage victories.
Rabobank team spokesman Jacob Bergsma said the team would announce today morning if the remaining riders would complete the tour.
Tour officials, who have said that they would have tried to exclude Rasmussen from the tour if they had known before it started that he had missed drug tests this spring, expressed satisfaction at the team's decision.
"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable," said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme.
On Tuesday, Rasmussen said he committed an "administrative error" by not informing cycling officials, as required, of his whereabouts this spring. He said at the time he was training in Mexico, near the home of his wife's family.
But a Danish news report on Wednesday quoted a former Italian rider saying that he had seen Rasmussen training in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy in mid June, days before the Danish anti-doping agency went to conduct a test on him at a different address. Confronted with the information by the Rabobank team manager Wednesday night, Rasmussen confessed, according to the team spokesman. A statement on the team's Web site said Rasmussen had been fired.
NO INJURIES IN EXPLOSIONS:Two small explosions were set off along the race route in Spain. There were no injuries.
American Floyd Landis is still hoping to overturn the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's 34-0 record on arbitration hearings and prove he did not take testosterone on his way to victory at last year's Tour. The three-person panel that presided over his case two months ago could announce its verdict soon. If Landis, who has mounted a $2-million legal defense, were found guilty, he would be suspended for two years. His victory is not recognized by organizers. Landis said last week he hopes to race again: "I don't want to end my career on this note.''