Cycling: Tour de France bans Virenque and TVM

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THE TOUR de France awarded itself the white jersey of sporting purity yesterday, banning the most popular French rider, Richard Virenque, as well as the Dutch TVM team and two senior Spanish officials from the 1999 Tour on "moral" grounds.

The decisions, unprecedented in the race's 96-year history, follow the announcement last year that anyone ethically suscy pect (i.e. anyone formally implicated in a doping scandal, whether proven or not) would be barred from this year's contest.

Opinions will differ on how rigidly the race organisers have applied their Caesar's Wife rule. Despite the suspicions of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, the Tour has approved the normal number of 20 teams to start the 1999 race at Puy-du-Fou in western France on 3 July.

The Spanish ONCE team have been invited, even though their sporting director and doctor have been barred. The German Telekom team have been accepted, despite evidence published in the German magazine Der Spiegel of systematic use of banned drugs and hormones.

The president of the Tour company, Jean-Claude Killy, said yesterday that he and his colleagues had considered cancelling the 1999 race as a gesture of their determination to stamp out drugs. "But that would have been to abandon our responsibilities," he said. "It would have punished those riders who obey the rules, as well as the spectators, television viewers and the Tour de France itself."

The Tour will, none the less, be an odd and diminished affair, without several of the world's top riders. Apart from Virenque, the other leading French rider, Laurent Jalabert, is refusing to enter France and subject himself to the country's tougher, new, continuous drugs tests. Last year's winner, the Italian Marco Pantani, has said he will not take part, following his positive test for having a dangerous level of red blood cells during the Tour of Italy earlier this month. TheBelgian rider, Frank Vandenbroucke, did not apply to ride in the Tour, following his arrest on possible doping charges in May.

The decision to exclude Virenque was widely expected but will provoke great controversy in France. As the then leader of the Festina team, Virenque was at the centre of the scandal that disrupted last year's Tour. Festina team trainer Willy Voet was caught crossing the Belgian-French border with illegal drugs in an official team car. He and other team members later admitted to using banned substances, especially the artificial hormone EPO, which boosts endurance by increasing the red blood cell count.

Virenque, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has continued to deny ever knowingly taking a banned drug. He now rides for the Italian Polti team, who said they might pull out in solidarity. The Spanish ONCE team is said to be considering similar action, after two of their officials were banned. The Dutch team, TVM, whose officials are under investigation, is the only one barred.

The Tour organisers said they reserved the right, before 3 July, to kick out any other riders, officials or teams who could "damage the image or reputation of the Tour de France".

n Jan Ullrich pulled out of the first stage of the Tour of Switzerland yesterday complaining of sore knee, leaving the 1997 winner's participation in this year's Tour of France in doubt.