Cycling: French official faces charges

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THE LATEST round of damaging allegations connecting cycling with doping offences became public yesterday, when France's leading two officials appeared before the magistrate investigating the Tour de France drugs scandal.

At a hearing in Lille the president of the French Cycling Federation, Daniel Baal, who is also the deputy president of the governing International Cycling Union, was charged with "complicity in helping others to obtain and use illegal performance enhancing substances".

The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, was also questioned by magistrate Patrick Keil, but was not charged.

The developments in Lille came on the same day as riders and management of the world's leading team, Mapei, were cleared of doping allegations following the discovery of banned amphetamines. However, according to a Belgian public prosecutor an Italian masseur with the Italian-Belgian team was still being held in custody last night in connection with the discovery of five flasks of amphetamines which had been mailed from the riders' hotel to Italy.

The Mapei riders were taken out of the De Panne three-day race earlier yesterday and held for questioning. "I can already state that management of the Mapei group is not involved in this case. The inquiry has made this clear," Louis Denecker, a Belgian public prosecutor, said.

"As far as the riders are concerned, they understand the situation very well because it is also important for them that they came out of this without any reproach."

Denecker alleged that the Italian masseur had tried to send the amphetamines to a compatriot who once had ties with Mapei, but he declined to give further details. The amphetamines were discovered in a video cassette box at Brussels airport. The Mapei riders, including the race leader and Belgian champion, Tom Steels, were forced to follow police, who halted the race.

The first part of the stage was later cancelled after other teams retired in sympathy with the Mapei team, but the second leg went ahead without the Mapei riders, who also included the world No 1, Michele Bartoli, and the former world champion, Johan Museeuw. The team's hotel rooms were also searched by police and urine samples taken.

There are fears that some races in the forthcoming World Cup series - including next week's Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix race on 11 April - could be deprived of a number of leading riders because of continuing drugs investigations. A number of Spanish teams, led by ONCE, are reluctant to race in France for fear of police harassment.

The Baal and Leblanc hearings were apparently prompted by a number of confessions by riders to Keil in recent weeks. According to a police source close to the case, the magistrate wanted to widen his investigation to demonstrate that the whole world of cycling was aware of doping and failed to take action.