By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 1, 2006
PARIS, June 30 -- The Tour de France, the legendary three-week bicycle race that is one of Europe's most popular sporting events, was rocked by a major drug scandal on Friday -- the day before the race was scheduled to begin -- that forced several of the top competitors to withdraw, including favorites Jan Ullrich of Germany and Ivan Basso of Italy.
Cycling analysts described the burgeoning doping scandal -- which centers on a sports doctor in Madrid who allegedly helped dozens of riders with performance-enhancing blood doping -- as the worst to ever hit the sport. They said that it could claim more Tour riders before the race is finished July 23 -- or even before it starts Saturday morning in the French Alsatian city of Strasbourg. Johan Bruyneel, coach of the Discovery Channel team that was headed by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong until his retirement last year, said the ongoing Spanish drug probe "is probably the biggest doping scandal in cycling and maybe even in sports ever.
"There's been a lot of damage done already, but it's getting so big that cycling is losing credibility," Bruyneel told Cyclingnews.com. The International Cycling Union, teams and their sponsors were all worried that their images were suffering and whether they had been implicated in the scandal or not, he said.
"People will always look back at this as a Tour de France where drugs had a huge impact," Dave Shields, a columnist for Dailypeloton.com, a U.S. cycling Web site, said in a telephone interview. "Unfortunately, there will be an even more cynical sense that whoever wins this year dodged the bullet of being named as a doper as well, but I hope in the long run, people will look back at the winner as a worthy champion."
Professional cycling has been dogged by drug scandals for years, and Friday's suspensions were an obvious embarrassment, coming on the eve of the sport's most prestigious and picturesque event, which this year is to travel 2,272 miles through the mountains, vineyards and countryside of France, with detours into five nearby countries. But Tour de France spokesman Matthieu Desplats said the tough measures demonstrated that cycling officials were committed to eradicating illegal drug use in the sport.
"If we have to make a huge decision the day before the race, we will do it," he said. "What we have to think about first is finding solutions to fight the doping system," he said, as well as protecting the interests "of the sport itself and the riders who are not involved, and who live by the rules and train hard."
According to media reports in Madrid, the drug scandal revolves around a sports doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, the head of hematology at a Madrid hospital who had worked with several cycling teams. Fuentes allegedly helped riders and athletes from other unidentified sports engage in different kinds of drug use and blood doping to enhance their performance.
Police searching apartments and clinics used by members of the doping ring reportedly found anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, the endurance-boosting substance EPO and about 100 bags of frozen blood, many marked in a secret code that identified professional cyclists.
The blood doping reportedly involved drawing oxygen-rich blood at high altitudes to obtain a concentrate of red blood cells, then injecting them back into riders before a race to boost endurance.
Some news reports suggested that Friday's suspensions came after police began cracking the code and tying the blood to specific riders.
Desplats said that nine riders were suspended by their teams Friday and banned from the race, including favorites Ullrich, 32, the leader of the T-Mobile team, and Basso, 28, leader of Denmark's CSC team.
Ullrich, who won the Tour de France in 1997 and has placed second five times, and Basso, winner of the three-week, 2,200-mile Giro d'Italia in May, had both hoped to be the first to win the Tour's yellow jersey since Armstrong retired last year after winning it for a record seventh consecutive time. Basso finished second and Ullrich third in 2005.
A second T-Mobile rider, Oscar Sevilla, 29, and the team's coach, Rudi Pevenage, also were expelled from the race, as was another top contender, Francisco Mancebo, 30, leader of France's AG2R Prevoyance team. He placed fourth in last year's Tour. Spaniard Joseba Beloki, who placed second in the Tour in 2002 and was to ride for team Astana-Wurth, also was suspended.
All of the riders denied that they had used performance-enhancing drugs or engaged in blood doping.
"I am shocked," Ullrich said in a statement posted on T-Mobile's Web site, referring to himself as a victim.
"I was in peak form, and now I could cry, because I have to head home," he said. After a few days of rest, he said, "together with my lawyers I will then set out to prove my innocence."
The Madrid drug investigation, which was revealed in May by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, had claimed numerous riders even before Friday's expulsions. In June, Tour officials disqualified two Spanish teams -- Astana-Wurth and Comunidad Valencia -- that had dozens of riders implicated in the blood-doping scandal.
On Thursday, a judge for the Court of Arbitration for Sport ordered Astana-Wurth reinstated. But Tour spokesman Desplats said that because so many of its riders had been suspended, the team had only five riders left as of Friday night and might not be able to field the six riders required to begin the race on Saturday.
Bonn-based T-Mobile, in a detailed statement, said it was suspending Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage because of "new information" that "strongly contradicts" their claims of innocence.
"If we are presented with evidence which leads us to doubt the credibility of one or other of our riders, then we act upon it immediately," Christian Frommert, director of sports communication for T-Mobile International, said in a statement. "That is the case now."
The suspensions leave the 93rd Tour de France even more wide open than it was before, with riders vying to be the first man other than Armstrong to win since 1999, when he captured his first of seven tours.
Armstrong's legend, too, has been tarnished by persistent reports that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs -- allegations that the 34-year-old Texan has strenuously denied. A recent investigation by the International Cycling Union exonerated Armstrong of charges that he had used drugs in his 1999 Tour victory.
Remaining contenders for this year's Tour include Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, 26, who leads his country's Caisse d'Epargne team; Australian Cadel Evans, who rides for Belgium's Davitamon-Lotto; and three Americans: Floyd Landis, 30, leader of Swiss team Phonak; George Hincapie, 33, co-leader of America's Discovery Channel team; and Levi Leipheimer, 32, the leader of Germany's Gerolsteiner team.