Cycling: Tour struggles to survive drug scandals

The world's premier cycling event is still under a cloud.
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The Independent Online
THE TOUR de France looks to be fighting a losing battle as it prepares for Saturday's start at Europe's biggest open-air theatre at Le Puy du Fou.

Struggling to polish up their image tarnished by the on-going drugs scandal, the organisers have lost their fight to exclude the French favourite, Richard Virenque.

The race had already lost most of its star quality, and a major sponsor, among those weary of the controversy, could be next. The bankers Credit Lyonnais will decide at the end of the Tour. "We will keep supporting a race which is attempting to restore its image, but if it can't, then we will pull out," said a spokesman, Nicolas Chaine.

It was a further blow to the Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, whose attempts to bar those he considered "undesirables" were partially foiled by the UCI, the international cycling union, backing Virenque.

Already Leblanc had lost the services of the past three winners, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis. The Italian Pantani opted out because the course was not tough enough, while injuries have ruled out the German Ullrich and his Danish team-mate, Riis.

A failed blood test cost Pantani his second victory in last month's Giro d'Italia, and the Italian was consequently questioned by anti-drugs police and an Italian Olympic inquiry.

The world No 1, Laurent Jalabert, quit in disgust. Others, including the Dutch TVM team, were pushed. They were named in Leblanc's hit-list of those he wanted barred from the Tour. The Frenchman has been at odds with authority since his ONCE squad and other Spanish teams quit the Tour because of police raids. "I don't feel French any more," he said, announcing that he would not seek Tour selection.

Leblanc also has had to revoke the barring of Jalabert's manager, Manolo Saiz, who had insulted the Tour, Leblanc claimed, with his criticism of their anti-doping policies and those of the police.

Jeroen Blijlevens, the Dutch sprinter, and his TVM team were excluded for insulting behaviour. Team officials were charged during last year's Tour, after raids and tests on their riders. Laurent Roux, left TVM but is out this year because of a doping offence with his new team.

Frank Vandenbroucke, who is leading the World Cup series, is also missing. He has been suspended until 31 July by his Cofidis team for taking products without the approval of his team doctor. The Belgian believed that Bernard Sainz, a purveyor of cures, had given him homeopathic medicine. Now police investigations are alleging that Sainz and Bertrand Lavelot, lawyer to several riders, are behind a drugs ring.

Vandenbroucke was cleared by the police, but is still suspended by his team who sacked the Italian Francesco Casagrande last year when he was banned for nine months on two doping counts. Casagrande returned last month and won the Tour of Switzerland, a victory he described as "my personal revenge" for the suspension.

He cannot compete in the Tour, because his Vini Caldirola team were excluded because the Ukrainian Sergei Gontchar failed a blood test during the Swiss race.

Virenque, second and third in his previous two Tours, was also out until the UCI ordered his reinstatement in the race. He and his Festina team left in disgrace last year after their manager confessed that drugs were used. Alex Zulle, Armin Meier and Laurent Dufaux, Virenque's Festina team- mates, also confessed to using the blood-enhancing erythropoietin, EPO, and after serving a seven-month suspension have been accepted by the Tour.

THE MISSING MEN

JEROEN BLIJLEVENS

(Neth) TVM

Excluded with team because of insulting behaviour when they quit last year's Tour. Has won stages in all three major tours.

SERGEI GONTCHAR

(Ukr) Vini Caldirola

Excluded. His failed blood test took out team-mates, too, because Tour rules allow for exclusion of any team not entering "its best roster". Strong time-trial rider. Fifth in Giro d'Italia.

PHILIPPE GAUMONT

(Fr) Ex-Cofidis

Excluded. Suspended for doping.

FRANCESCO CASAGRANDE

(It) Vini Caldirola

Excluded with team because team-mate, Sergei Gontchar, failed a blood test. Won Tour of Switzerland weeks after completing a nine-month suspension for doping.

LAURENT ROUX

(Fr) Casino

Excluded. Suspended for doping.

FRANK VANDENBROUCK

(Bel) Cofidis

Suspended by team until 31 July for taking products without approval of doctor. Leads World Cup series.

LAURENT JALABERT

(Fr) ONCE

Declined, saying "I don't feel French any more." Twice winner of Tour of Spain, and three times winner of Tour de France points jersey.

MARCO PANTANI

(It) Mercatone Uno

Declined. Because the course was not mountainous enough for him. Then failed a blood test when poised to win Giro d'Italia last month. Winner of Tour de France and Giro last year.

MICHELE BARTOLI

(It) Mapei

Injured. Twice winner of World Cup series.

BJARNE RIIS

(Den) Deutsche Telekom

Injured. Broke his arm during Tour of Switzerland crash. Won 1996 Tour de France.

JAN ULLRICH

(Ger) Deutsche Telekom

Injured. Knee problem his retirement from Tour of Switzerland. Won 1997 Tour and was second last year.

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