Cycling: Rest no priority for Tour itinerary

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The Independent Online
THE TOUR de France will be ridden back to front next year, reflecting, perhaps, the upside down logic of the organisers. Defying expectations, the schedule for the 1999 race will be only slightly lightened to reduce the temptation - some say, the compulsion - on riders to boost their performance by taking illegal drugs. Despite the drug scandals which all but wrecked the 1998 Tour, next year's event will be roughly as long and just as tough, with the exception of the addition of a second rest day.

The race director, Jean-Marie LeBlanc, said yesterday it was not up to the world's greatest stage cycle race to slacken the demands on its riders. The length of the race had been already been considerably reduced since the Second World War.

This conveniently ignores the scores of extra sprints and time trials - races within races - which have been added in recent years and the levels of speed now demanded of the riders, especially in the mountains. Before the war, when the race took 26 days and 4,500 kilometres, it was common to see the riders cycling along with cigarettes drooping from their mouths. These days the stimulants tend to be less obvious.

The 20 day, 3,680km (2,286 miles) 1999 Tour will be 200km shorter than last year; this is the equivalent of dropping a short day's stage but an insignificant reduction over a three-week race. The main novelty - apart from yet another drugs "code of conduct" - will be that the race will start in the west of France, at the Puy de Fou, in the Vendee, and spiral clockwise through northern and eastern France, tackling the Alps before the Pyrenees. Traditionally, the "Grande Boucle" has pedalled anti- clockwise and scaled the Pyrenees before the Alps.

Almost all of next year's race will take place in France, the only exception being a a short incursion into Italy. In the year 2000, however, the Tour hopes to start in the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe.

"There's no reason to believe that, if there's doping, it's because the Tour is too long," LeBlanc said. "There's no link between the two."

He said that, if anything, the problem was that the schedule of other, shorter road races was getting too crowded. He suggested that it was up to the other contests to reduce the burden of expectations on the leading riders, not the Tour.

Last year, the race was racked by drug-scandals, not through the vigilance of the Tour organisers but because of vigorous investigations by the French judiciary and police. The Festina team, one of whose officials was caught crossing the Belgian border with performance-enhancing drugs, was ejected after one week. Other teams withdrew, complaining about judicial and press harassment. Only half the riders finished. Festina announced yesterday that it was parting company with the leading French rider, Richard Virenque, almost the only member of last year's team to refuse to admit that he took drugs knowingly.