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Stunned Sport Takes Another Hit

Riders, fans and sponsors gauge cycling's ability to recover from its latest drug scandal.

July 29, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

The Outdoor Life Network's roundup of the 2006 Tour de France scheduled for Sunday night: canceled.

Details of Floyd Landis' heartwarming winning Tour ride on the website of his Phonak team page: erased.

Landis appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Friday: not for now.

American interest in the sport of road cycling: collective finger poised on the delete button.

Landis' story was compelling -- 30-year-old Mennonite who moved from rural Pennsylvania to Southern California so he could race bikes and who went on to win the world's most prestigious competition last Sunday.

Then he was accused Thursday of failing a drug test.

Even Landis himself, going on a public relations offensive Friday and asserting his innocence, said, "I don't see how any good for the sport can come out of this. But I'm worried about my own future."

Landis' drug tests from Stage 17 -- when he recovered from a disastrous performance a day earlier to ride alone at the head of the pack and gain back much of the time he had lost -- showed an abnormal reading of the ratio of his testosterone to epitestosterone (t/e) level.

So far, only the results of his first or "A" sample have been released and no possible sanctions will be levied until the "B" sample is tested. However, his Phonak team has suspended him from racing until the "B" sample results are released. And if those results are positive, Landis could be fired by his team and lose his Tour de France title.

Landis said he expects the second result to be the same as the first. He has hired a Spanish lawyer to prepare a scientific defense that most likely will include an argument that Landis has a naturally occurring abnormal t/e ratio.

But it is not only Landis who has been knocked down. His sport is also left reeling.

Jim Andrews, editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report, said cycling is in trouble.

"If it comes out that everybody is pretty convinced he was doping," Andrews said, "it could be the final straw. If you're a sponsor putting marketing money in this sport, how much more should you be asked to take?

"The sport was already damaged by previous drug scandals. Floyd was such a feel-good, positive story that might have gotten people thinking, 'They've turned the corner.' If that's proven not to be the case, it's just a cold slap in the face."

Companies that sponsor professional teams were in hiding Friday.

Ashleigh Koss, spokeswoman for Amgen, the biotech company that sponsors the fledgling Tour of California, said executives would not be available to talk about their investment in cycling. Their first race last February was won by Landis.

Phonak, the Swiss hearing-device company, had already ended its seven-year sponsorship of the Tour. Lance Berg, a spokesperson for the company that is taking over, San Francisco's iShares, said, "We will wait for the appropriate bodies to make a thorough and formal investigation."

Four of the top five finishers from the 2005 Tour de France had been sent home the day before this year's Tour began because of an ongoing Spanish drug investigation. And charges that seven-time winner Lance Armstrong was involved in doping have persisted even after he retired last season.

USA board president Jim Ochowicz said crowds at this year's Tour were noticeably down. "It was partly the Lance effect," Ochowicz said, "and there has to have been an effect because of the drug thing too."

After news of Landis' test results were released, officials of German television station ZDF said it may no longer broadcast the race. "We signed a broadcasting contract for a sporting event, not a show demonstrating the performances of the pharmaceutical industry," ZDF editor Nikolaus Brender told VeloNews.

Germany's Jan Ullrich, 1997 Tour winner, was one of the racers sent home after being linked to the Spanish doping probe and subsequently was fired by his T-Mobile team. The result was swift: German viewership of the race fell from 2.69 million in 2005 to 1.49 million in 2006.

Amy Phillips, a spokeswoman for OLN, said it was too early to speculate on what the only American network that televises the race would do. She said OLN pulled this Sunday's recap show because "editorially it wasn't relevant for the time being."

Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, which runs the Tour of California, said his company "remains bullish on the sport. We hope very much Floyd's name is cleared and I'm betting it will be. But we are not deterred at all."

Local amateur cyclists are eager to reserve judgment but fear their sport's reputation will be permanently damaged.

"We desperately want to believe that Landis didn't knowingly take any banned supplements," said Steve Bowen, 51, a member of the cycling club Los Angeles Wheelmen.

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