Not many people know this, but new Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen and I go way back. Most people think that he got the nickname “Chicken” because he is so skinny but in fact, I am actually the primary reason he was given the name when we were mountain bike racing back in Denmark. It’s kind of a crazy story and became something of an issue between us for a while but things are more friendly now. It did get a little chilly when he and I met up at the Tour of California recently though, so I don’t know if he’s totally forgiven me.
You see, it all began back in Denmark in the mid 90’s. Even though mountain bike racing was still a growing sport in Europe at the time, it was often difficult to make ends meet as an American so I was forced to pick up odd jobs from time to time in between races. As I was wandering around the town of Tollose on the day before the next event, I happened to run into Rasmussen and a few of his Danish teammates outside a coffee shop. They invited me to sit with them for a little bit while they practiced their English and asked me questions about Missy Giove and John Tomac.
After a little while a random guy came over and asked us if we were familiar with the Danish children’s program Bamses Billedbog. I had no idea what he was talking about but the Danes went crazy and started talking about how they always watched it when they were growing up. Apparently, it is a Sesame Street-esque kind of program where people dress in animal costumes and the primary characters are a Bear named Bamse and a Chicken named Kylling. As it turned out, the guy that was talking to us was actually the actor that played Bamse the Bear and he was trying to get someone to fill in for his partner, Kylling the Chicken, at a promotional event that was tied to the bike race.
At first, nobody was too excited to get into a Chicken costume but the Danish guys knew I was a little short on cash so they translated the situation for me and talked the actor who played the Bear into letting an American handle the role. The guy’s car was parked right out in front of the coffee shop so he opened up the trunk and sure enough, pulled out an elaborate Chicken outfit. By this point I was actually pretty excited about playing Kylling for a bunch of Danish kids but I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
Sadly, the reason that the Bear actor needed help was because the Chicken actor had apparently gotten a little too Hollywood (or whatever the Danish equivalent is) and had developed a fairly hefty cocaine addiction as a result of the show’s success. Not only was this problematic from a reliability standpoint (as evidenced by my newfound job) but it had also been difficult on the wardrobe department as they had to constantly alter the Chicken costume to account for the actor’s dramatically falling weight.
To make a long story short, I had barely gotten the stockings of the Chicken suit up to my calves when the material became dangerously compromised. I didn’t think it would be cool to ruin the costume so I gave it back to the Bear actor and tried to apologize for having the legs of a normal bike racer. At this point, the Bear actor was starting to panic because he was going to be in serious trouble if he didn’t find someone about 5’10” who weighed less than 140lbs. Immediately, we all looked at the only man for the job.
Rasmussen was actually really cool about it. At first. We all basically guilted him into putting the Chicken outfit on and a few minutes later he piled in to the Bear’s car and took off. It was the next day that things got tense between me and the New Chicken. As it turned out, the children’s event that they had gone to went really late and the Bear didn’t end up bringing Rasmussen back to the team hotel until nearly midnight. Furthermore, all the little grubby kids were sneezing and slobbering all over the costume and by the time he got to the start line the next day, he had begun to sniffle. I rode over to him as we were warming up to ask how it went and he just looked over at me and said, “Not well Fatty, not well.”
Maybe it was a mental thing as a result of the “Fatty” comment but I ended up flatting twice and pulled out about halfway through the race. I can’t remember how Rasmussen ended up finishing but I distinctly recall hearing “GO CHICKEN” and “KYLLING RASMUSSEN” at various points throughout the event and for the remainder of the time I raced with him. Little did I know that he would be called “Chicken” for the rest of his career
When I asked him how he felt about people misinterpreting the origin of his nickname at the Tour of California he laughed and said, “Hey, I’d rather be known for being skinny than for dressing up in a Chicken costume.” Then he called me “Fatty” again.