YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Doping Scandal Rocks Tour

Favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich are among nine cyclists suspended from the French race after officials receive details of a raid in Spain.

July 01, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The second-, third- and fourth-place finishers behind Lance Armstrong in the 2005 Tour de France were removed from this year's competition on Friday as a drug scandal that began last month in Madrid threatened to destroy the world's most famous cycling race.

When the 2,273-mile race begins today in Strasbourg with a 4.4-mile prologue, it will be missing Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Francesco Mancebo and six other riders who were suspended after Tour organizers and leaders of the 21 participating teams agreed that any competitor under investigation for blood doping would be deemed ineligible.

The action was taken hours after Tour officials received a 40-page summary from Spanish police authorities who have been investigating a group that allegedly supplied cyclists from several teams with banned drugs and equipment to aid in blood transfusions. Included were the names of 58 cyclists, including nine who were scheduled to race in the Tour.

Friday's developments are the latest punch to the jaw of a sport long mired in allegations of cheating.

"Cycling is at the point of death," Eusebio Unzue, the director of the Spanish team Caisse d'Epargne, told cycling publication VeloNews. "The image of elite cycling isn't one of health but of a sport that exists on the limits of legality."

Basso, who rides for a team sponsored by El Segundo's Computer Sciences Corp., or CSC, was the favorite to win the Tour de France. He was second last year as Armstrong, now retired but still fighting doping allegations, won the race for the seventh consecutive time.

Basso, a 28-year-old Italian, could not be reached for comment. He was headed to Italy by Friday afternoon. CSC team leader Bjarne Riis, a Tour winner in 1996, said: "We had a meeting with all the teams this morning. In that meeting we made a decision, I made a decision, that Ivan would not participate in the Tour."

Riis said Basso told him he was innocent and added, "We have never had any indication that he was involved in anything." He also said, "We believe it's not possible for one rider to focus on the Tour and, at the same time, defend himself. So we believe it's best for Basso, for everybody, that he's not going to do the Tour."

The T-Mobile team lost two riders, Ullrich, a German who won the 1997 Tour and is a five-time runner-up, and Spaniard Oscar Sevilla. Also suspended was its team director and longtime advisor, Rudy Pevenage.

Spokesman Luuc Eisenga said the evidence T-Mobile officials were presented at the meeting of teams Thursday night was "clear. It left little room for doubt."

Ullrich, 32, was informed of the suspension while on his way to a news conference. He told German television reporters, "I could cry going home in such good shape. I need a few days, and then I'll try and prove my innocence with the help of a lawyer. I will go on fighting."

He also said he told his teammates to ride hard in the Tour. "They should fight for me," he said.

Mancebo, another Spaniard, races for AG2R. The other five suspended riders are all members of the Astana-Wurth team: Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal and Alberto Contador from Spain, Allan Davis from Australia and Sergio Paulinho from Portugal.

Astana-Wurth was known until recently as Liberty Seguros -- its sponsor a Spanish unit of U.S. insurer Liberty Mutual Group -- before its director, Manolo Saiz, was arrested after the police raid in Madrid. Liberty Mutual quickly withdrew, but top rider Alexandre Vinokourov, from Kazakhstan, found a consortium of oil companies from his country to fund the team.

Vinokourov is reportedly not on the Spanish list, but he still won't be able to ride in the Tour, leaving the race void of yet another top competitor. A team must have at least six riders to begin the race and Astana-Wurth, with five suspended cyclists, doesn't meet the minimum. Vinokourov finished fifth last year.

In the Madrid raid, police reportedly found illegal performance-enhancing drugs and 200 bags of frozen blood from athletes. Endurance athletes have used blood transfusions to increase their supply of red corpuscles that help carry oxygen to muscles, a practice known as blood doping.

Cycling's ruling body, Union Cycliste Internationale, said in a statement that it had not been established that any of the nine suspended riders had broken anti-doping rules.

However, last year all teams agreed to a professional tour code of ethics that says, in part: "No team will allow a rider to compete while under investigation in any doping affair."

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said the suspensions marked "an unfortunate situation for all of professional cycling, not just those teams and riders involved."

This is not the first drug scandal to tarnish the Tour. Three days before the 1998 race began, Willy Voet, a masseur for the French Festina team, was stopped at the French-Belgian border, where police found a trunk full of doping products.

Los Angeles Times Articles