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 Tour de France section

  Tour Loses Much of Its Luster

By Jocelyn Noveck
Associated Press
Wednesday, July 29, 1998; 5:19 p.m. EDT

AIX-LES-BAINS, France – It's one of the most cherished sports traditions in France – waiting at roadside as the Tour de France cyclists whiz by.

That's what people did in Aix-les-Bains on Wednesday, as the grand cycling race passed through this Alpine town for the 21st time since it began in 1903.

But along with the excitement there was sadness. No one could ignore the drug scandal that has enveloped this national treasure.

"I admire the riders so much – they are all champions,'' said Danielle Thullet, a 75-year-old retired teacher. "But I must say, I'm a bit disappointed in them.''

Yet she wasn't about to miss the arrival of the riders, descending from three tough climbing days in the Alps. Neither was 16-year-old Laetitia Gelloz, who spent three hours sitting on a curb in the hot sun.

"Doping is bad, of course, but I think the media has exaggerated everything,'' Gelloz said. "They're going to end up accusing everybody, including innocent people.''

Both fans cheered when the riders finally arrived, unaware the race had unraveled during the day – only four days before its finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

The cyclists, angered by police tactics in an investigation that already has left one team disqualified and subjected five others to police searches, basically went on strike, forcing organizers to cancel the stage that began in the morning in Albertville. The riders coasted through the course, arriving at the finish line two hours late.

Three teams pulled out in protest, including France's top cyclist, Laurent Jalabert. Riders lashed out at police treatment that included strip searches, detention and officers searching through personal affairs in their hotel rooms.

While the fans in Aix-les-Bains didn't belittle the seriousness of the drug charges, many felt the Tour's riders have been unfairly targeted for an offense many suspect has long been widespread.

"Everybody knows there's doping in cycling,'' said bartender Eric Guninand. "Why does it have to be here, in France? Why can't they do this in Spain or Italy?

"Look at the kids out there,'' he said, pointing to the children lining the streets. "It's a great atmosphere. It's sad that this event has been spoiled.''

At about 7:15 p.m., the crowds in front of the train station finally got what they'd been waiting for. After a long parade of sponsors' cars, manned by dancing employees handing out drinks, hats or flags, the whirring of press helicopters came into earshot.

Police hurriedly pushed people onto the curb, and the media cars came tearing around the corner onto President Wilson Boulevard. Then, suddenly, the riders, all in one pack, shining in their fluorescent outfits, came dashing through – not at top speed, but enough to put a smile on the face of 10-year-old Virginie Guiaunnet.

"This is my first time – it was cool!'' she said.

One person was already gone when the colorful convoy arrived. Roger Casile, 88, a retired mapmaker, had put on a suit, grabbed his walking stick, and taken the train from nearby Chambery for the arrival. But after two hours at a roadside cafe, he had to catch the 7 p.m. train back.

"I've seen this race 20 times, and I'll have another chance,'' he said. "I'll still be around next year, and so will the Tour de France.''

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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