Cycling: Leblanc may have to quit

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH judge investigating doping in the Tour de France may extend his inquiries to the veteran director of the race, Jean-Marie Leblanc, the man who announced a new drugs "honour code" for the contest last year.

Leblanc - known as "Monsieur Tour" for his long association with the world's greatest cycle road race - has been ordered to attend a meeting with Judge Patrick Keil in Lille tonight. The president of the French cycling federation, Daniel Baal, has also been summoned.

The judge is already investigating 12 people, including France's most popular cyclist, Richard Virenque, for their alleged roles in the doping scandal that almost wrecked last year's Tour. According to leaks to the French press, Judge Keil intends to inform both Leblanc and Baal that they are now considered suspects in the case.

If so, Leblanc, under his own tightened rules, would have to stand down as director of the 1999 race, which begins at Puy-du-Fou on 3 July.

It is reported that the judge may place the pair under formal examination - one step short of a charge - for "complicity" in the use of illegal substances. In effect the two men would then face possible charges of having turned a blind eye to the use of illegal, performance-boosting, drugs by Tour riders over many years.

There are doubts whether the judge could make such a charge stick but he is said to be determined to pursue his inquiries until he reaches the people ultimately responsible for the widespread use of drugs in cycling. The criminal investigation began early in last year's Tour, when one of the trainers of the Festina team was arrested crossing the Belgian border with illegal substances in his official team car.

Since then, a string of people - including the team manager and the team leader, Virenque - have been placed under formal investigation. On Monday, the judge extended the inquiry to the president of the professional cycling league, Roger Legeay, taking the investigation beyond the riders and team officials into the higher echelons of the sport for the first time.

Under the new "Caesar's Wife" code of conduct for the Tour announced by Leblanc last year, anyone even suspected of involvement with doping will not be allowed to take part. This almost certainly means that Virenque, now racing for the Italian Polti team, will be banned from the 1999 Tour. Logically, it also means Leblanc would have to step down if placed under investigation by Judge Keil.

Leaks to French newspapers suggest that the judge believes that senior cycling officials have committed "sins of omission" by ignoring widespread use of endurance-enhancing drugs such as EPO. Virenque, who has adamantly denied taking drugs, is under investigation for trafficking in the drugs as well as using them.