Cycling: Ullrich out of Tour as drug row intensifies

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The Independent Online

The Tour de France starts here today immersed in the worst crisis in its history after its two favourites, the German Jan Ullrich and the Italian Ivan Basso, were named as two of 56 riders who have been implicated in a massive anti-doping operation in Spain and excluded from the race.

According to the rules of cycling's ProTour, any rider officially connected with anti-doping investigations has to be suspended by their squad. Ullrich's T-Mobile team announced their decision to suspend the 1997 Tour winner yesterday morning minutes after they had received a fax from Tour organisers confirming their team leader's inclusion in the report.

Speaking at the luxurious golf resort just south of Strasbourg, where the squad's pre-Tour presentation had been due to take place, team spokesman Luuc Eisengaa said: "We had no choice. We chose to believe Jan when he denied his involvement, but the point has been reached where we can no longer believe him."

Ullrich was informed of the decision that he, his team-mate Oscar Sevilla and his long-time confidante and sports manager Rudy Pevenage had been suspended while they were travelling on the team bus towards the presentation. The bus promptly did a U-turn, leaving behind it little more than clouds of collective disbelief and gloom.

For T-Mobile, the news is nothing short of catastrophic: Ullrich is as big as Michael Schumacher in Germany and the telephone company invests around €20m (£13.8m) every year.

The crisis rapidly spread to other teams, and soon it was the turn of Basso, seen as the successor to the seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong. Spurred by T-Mobile, an emergency meeting of team managers decided to apply ProTour regulations in full - meaning Basso, recent winner of the Tour of Italy, had to go.

His team manager at CSC, the 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis reluctantly agreed, saying it would be "impossible for my rider to take part, he would be hunted down by journalists. You wouldn't ask him a single question about the Tour".

As television crews and journalists prowled around in front of Basso's hotel, the Italian was smuggled out of a side door.

The Spaniard Francisco Mancebo, who was fourth last year, is also implicated in the anti-doping operations and therefore excluded, while a question mark hangs over the Astana-Wurth squad. Five of their riders due to start the Tour were named on the list, leading the Tour director Christian Prudhomme to state that "it seems as if the entire squad was involved in collective doping". Should the five be excluded, then technically there are too few of them for the team to start the race.

Led by the Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov - not on the list himself - Astana have expressed, off the record, their complete opposition to leaving the race. Hours before the race was due to start, there was still no clear indication of who would be taking part.

Should Vinokourov finally remain, then he will be favourite to win the Tour - something hardly appreciated by organisers.

If Vinokourov goes, following Lance Armstrong's retirement last July, this means a completely unprecedented situation for the Tour: all the top-five finishers from the previous year will be missing. The mantle of main contender will be then divided equally between the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and the Americans Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis.

"I only hope that the public will appreciate that whoever wins the Tour, it is because they deserve it, not because of all the problems beforehand," Valverde said - but it seems to be a slender hope.

Appropriately, David Millar's return to the Tour after a two-year ban for taking performance-enhancing substances has come at a point when there is talk of little else but doping.

"I am riding on blind faith," Millar, who has not ridden in any events since 2004 and who is targeting today's prologue time trial, said. After such a disastrous build-up, much the same goes for the Tour itself.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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