Cycling: What now for Tour drug pedlars?

The most controversial Tour de France ever staged might be over, but the repercussions will rage on.

AFTER ITS blackest three weeks, the Tour de France is over. The riders, sponsors, officials, and fans have departed, but French justice will not go away.

In Lille, at the hub of the drugs investigation, prosecutors are preparing "a battle plan", and the French National Assembly will debate a new, tougher law against doping in sport. The sports minister, Marie-George Buffet, is calling for heavier custodial sentences after the detention of three team doctors, two team managers, two masseurs, and one rider following police operations during the Tour.

If nothing else the scandal has spurred action throughout sport with the International Olympic Committee meeting on 20 August, and a November get-together of riders, managers, and top officials to search for a formula for a "clean" sport.

Cycling's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, has, over some 30 years, punished riders caught by doping controls. They never went for the suppliers and those who administered the drugs.

Yet since 1989 it has been a criminal offence under French law to "incite, facilitate, use, or administer doping products to athletes." New penalties will mean five years and a 500,000 French francs (pounds 51,000) fine for the purveyor, and seven years plus a fine of a million francs for inciting the use of drugs.

Only France has this law and the Tour and its teams felt the force of it when the Festina team's Belgian masseur, Willy Voet, was arrested and charged with smuggling doping products into France almost a month ago.

Prosecutors in Lille plan to interview more riders and managers from other teams, plus those in high positions in cycling. "We want to have enough elements to prove that the world of cycling knew what was going on," a justice source said, adding that they were not short of offers of potentially useful information.

Fears that the Tour could not survive the scandal subsided as the 85th edition of France's most important annual event reached Paris. The Tour is big business, rating third in size and prestige behind the World Cup and the Olympic Games. It works with high profile companies such as Fiat and Coca-Cola, who, along with the French bank Credit Lyonnais and Champion supermarkets, provided between 17m and 20m francs of the Tour's budget of 250m.

There has already been a flicker of doubt about the sport's image with the cancellation of the first big-money apres-Tour race. A source at one sponsor said: "It is much too early to appreciate the consequences, but there is anxiety about the notoriety that has come to the Tour. We do not want to make hasty judgements but we are very attentive about how the problems will be controlled."

Nicolas Chaine, the communications director of Credit Lyonnais, told the French newspaper Le Monde: "I am not being hypocritical but it is obvious no one can race day after day on mineral water and salad. The substances used by the riders need to be identified. The Tour is solid but it needs appropriate controls."

The attitude of team sponsors could affect how often they race in France. The speed with which four Spanish teams on the Tour fled over the border, and the decision by riders with the Dutch team TVM could hint at an answer to that question.

Marco Pantani claimed that he had won "the cleanest Tour" because police raids had made it so. He has an offer of a million francs a month for three years, but at the back end of the field 10,000 francs a month is a common wage.

He suggested that if riders were willing to take drugs "they find themselves among the best, winning much money, and enhancing their sponsor's image. Those who don't find their performances lagging along with their salaries. They are almost condemned to take the drug."

That is the philosophy of many in the sport. If the French justice system can crack down, then those who control cycling should toughen up too. They could start by overhauling the crowded racing calendar which runs from February to October, and the points-ranking system which governs entry into the Tour and can determine a rider's salary. That can tempt a weary rider to turn to artificial aids.

THE MEN UNDER INVESTIGATION

WILLY VOET

A 53-year-old Belgian, employed as a masseur by the Festina team. Detained after customs search at Neuville-en-Ferrain discovered 400 vials and capsules of doping products in the team car he was driving, three days before the Tour began in Dublin on 11 July. Charged with smuggling drugs over the Belgian-French frontier. Changed original story that the products were for his personal use. Claimed he was working to orders. Kept records of doses given, to whom, and the amount owing. Detained in Loos prison.

BRUNO ROUSSEL

French team director of the world No 1 ranked team, Festina. Taken for questioning, along with team doctor Eric Rijckaert, at Cholet a week after Voet's arrest. Roussel confessed that the banned products were used by his riders but "under medical supervision." Thirteen days later Roussel was freed but, with Rijckaert, faces charges of inciting the use of doping products.

ERIC RIJCKAERT

Festina team doctor is still detained after he and Roussel were questioned at Lille, the centre of the investigation. His lawyer Arsene Rijckaert (no relation) claimed that Rijckaert had said that the team had a "slush" fund for the purchase of drugs, into which riders had to contribute.

CEES PRIEM

The manager of Dutch team TVM, was taken for questioning on 23 July after case was reopened concerning a customs stop-and-search in March when 104 vials of erythropoietin (EPO) were found in a TVM car on the motorway near Reims. Still in custody charged with drug offences.

ANDREI MIKHAILOV

Russian team doctor of TVM, is also still detained after products found in his room during a police raid were taken for testing.

JAN MOORS

TVM masseur, transferred to Reims for questioning yesterday by judge Odile Madrolle, who is in charge of the investigation into the March discovery of drugs.

RODOLFO MASSI

Italian rider with the Casino team, who was leading the King of the Mountains and who won the stage into Luchon. Was taken for questioning on 30 July after police raid discovered quantity of drugs in his hotel room at Chambery. Transferred to Lille for questioning by the examining magistrate, Patrick Keil. Charged with inciting and facilitating the use of doping substances, and importing and offering drugs. Still in custody.

NICOLAS TERRADOS

Doctor of the ONCE team - which includes the world No 1 ranked rider Laurent Jalabert, of France. Detained at Chambery and transferred to Lille for questioning. Still held.

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