Cycling: Drugs crisis leaves Tour in chaos

Calls to cancel the sport's greatest event are likely to go unheeded but many leading riders will stay away
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A SUMMER without the Tour de France?

For the French - for lovers of cycling throughout the world - it would be like a summer without sunshine, a summer without chilled white wine. It would be the British equivalent of a summer without cricket, Wimbledon and the FA Cup final, all rolled into one.

We are not quite there yet. Doping scandals may be tripping over one another like cyclists as they sprint to a stage finish on a narrow village street. But such is the power of money and public and media expectations that the 86th Tour would probably have to go ahead from 3 July, even if there were only a handful of riders who were not suspended, or in jail.

Final entries for the Tour, and decisions on eligibility, must be made by next Wednesday. If the Tour organisers applied the "Caesar's Wife" rule that they announced with much fanfare last year, the world's greatest cycle race, the world's most watched live sporting event, could not take place. In theory, any rider or team even suspected of using performance- enhancing drugs would be banned.

Consider the facts. Marco Pantani, the winner of last year's Tour, a man who cultivated a cleaner-than-clean reputation, was ordered to "rest" at the weekend, when he was found to have a suspiciously and dangerously high level of red cells in his blood. (At the time, he was just two stages from winning the Tour of Italy.) Yesterday, a second sample confirmed the result, and he was banned for 15 days.

No less than 67 French professional riders - almost half the total - have provisionally failed the tougher, continuous tests introduced by the French cycling association this year. Most of the others, presumed to be obeying the rules, are turning in miserable performances, up to four kilometres an hour slower on average than last year.

Two separate judicial inquiries are in progress in France into doping in cycling. A score of people - riders, trainers, France's most senior cycling official, a quack doctor and a lawyer famed for defending cyclists on doping charges - have been placed under formal investigation. Riders and officials from three of the leading French teams - Festina, Cofidis and Francaise des Jeux - are among those under investigation.

Two leading Spanish teams, ONCE and Banesto, who withdrew from last year's race, are threatening not to come this year, because they disapprove of this "harassment" of riders. One of France's top riders, Laurent Jalabert, has hardly set foot in the country since the new random testing rules were introduced on 1 January. France's most popular rider, Richard Virenque, continues to deny ever having knowingly taken an illegal stimulant, despite pages of documentary evidence of his habits given to an investigating judge by his former trainer.

The trainer, Willy Voet, has written an extraordinary book, Chain Massacre, which describes the omnipresence of drugs in cycling: not just for professional use on the road but also for recreational relaxation afterwards. The book has topped the non-fiction best-sellers' list in France for two weeks.

Against this background, there is a groundswell of opinion in France that the Doomsday Solution - the cancellation of this year's Tour - is the only sane and honourable course of action. The newspaper, Liberation, called yesterday for a one-year moratorium on all professional cycling events to allow a new beginning for a sport in which "the worst come first".

This is not the view of the Tour organisers, two-thirds of French public opinion or of that great chronicler and arbiter of all things sporting in France, the daily sports newspaper L'Equipe. In an unfortunately timed article in its weekend magazine, the newspaper - highly dependent on the Tour to maintain its summer sales - declared the 1999 Tour in advance to be a "clear water" race where honesty and transparency would prevail.

On the day of publication Pantani, the 1998 winner, was found by a random test in Italy to have a 52 per-cent volume of red cells in his blood, two per cent over the limit. This is generally supposed to be a sign, although not a proof, that a rider has been taking the endurance-boosting wonder drug EPO. The drug was invented by an Italian scientist, Francesco Conconi, who remains the chairman of the scientific committee of the international cycling union (UCI): the body officially supposed to stamp out use of the drug. Hypocrisy is engrained in the sport.

Under the UCI rules, Pantani is not guilty of anything, except being sick. He has been told to stop work for two weeks for health reasons. He could still take part in the Tour de France, if he wishes to do so and if the organisers do not apply their much-trumpeted new rule that all riders must be "above suspicion".

L'Equipe, and the Tour organisers, argue that the testing rules now enforced in France - much tougher than the UCI rules, including continuous and spot tests on riders' blood content, even between races - will make the 1999 race honest and fair. That remains to be seen. Even if it were so, there would be a case for abandoning the contest this year.

Cycling is in danger of becoming a "two gear" sport, with the French testing rules, and the new-found militancy of the French judiciary, scaring off many riders "successful" elsewhere. It would be absurd for the Tour de France to become a competition in which many of the world's best riders would not, or dare not, take part.

Secondly, the hypocrisy embedded in professional cycling is also embedded in the very structure of the Tour. Despite a slight reduction in length this year, and one extra rest day, the contest has so many long stages and steep climbs, so many sprints, so many races within races, that, without artificial assistance, it would be humanly impossible to complete in the times now expected.

The great French champion of the 1960s, Raymond Poulidor, said recently: "In my time we averaged 37 kilometres an hour on the Tour. Now, if you don't do 40kph, you're professionally dead. And we had shorter stages... Up against a rider who takes dope, a clean rider has no chance. There is a constant, accursed race for higher performance and more money."

In other words, there is a circle of hypocrisy at the core of professional cycling which includes not only the riders and organisers but also the press and the public. The majority of cycling fans in France, and elsewhere, detest the unmasking of their cheating heroes. Cycling aficionados in the north of France recently beat up a journalist from L'Equipe, blaming the press for the travails of Messrs Virenque, Jalabert and others.

Michel, a Parisian hotel owner and long-time cycling fan, confessed, "It is a little like grand prix racing. There, part of the attraction, to the public, whatever people say, is the risk of accidents and death. In cycling, the attraction is to see the limits pushed to ever more implausible levels. The fans don't want to go and watch a Sunday morning amateur training session. The majority don't care, don't want to know, what the riders have been taking."

Only the detonation of the ultimate deterrent - the cancellation of the Tour - could force the world of cycling to face these realities: to make the sport once more a contest of physical ability; a wonderful spectacle, open, for free, to all; not a contest of a body's ability to respond to more and more advanced pharmaceuticals.

What are the chances of the organisers and sponsors announcing such a step next Wednesday? Little more than zero.