Tour de France Is in Jeopardy
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page C1
Bjarne Riis, 1996 Tour champion and an unofficial spokesman for the riders' protest, told France 3 television that "if the police leave us alone, we depart [Thursday]. If not, we all go home." He later modified his statement to say he was not against police questioning per se but that it should be conducted with consideration for the riders.
French rider Laurent Jalabert, the No. 1 rider in the world, and the rest of his Spanish team, ONCE, today pulled out of the 2,423-mile, 22-day race as police searched the team hotel in Chambery for illegal substances. Jalabert himself was later interrogated by police.
"I can't ride under these conditions," Jalabert told France 2 television. "It has no interest for me. . . . Next year we'll see if I come back. It's not sure."
One other team, the Spanish Banesto, also withdrew today, as did the three remaining riders of the Riso Scotti team. A French team, Festina, was thrown out of the Tour last week following admissions that riders had either taken performance-enhancing drugs or contributed money to buy them, and a Dutch team, TVM, is under police investigation. Some French newspapers have begun calling for the cancellation of the rest of the race.
This event has been a sad sequel to the highly successful soccer World Cup held in nine cities around France, which ended July 12 with a French victory over Brazil and a general feeling that the 32-nation tournament had been well organized and a memorable sporting event. The Tour de France normally is even more highly regarded by the French, 15 million of whom line their roads and streets every summer to watch the pack flash by.
Today's strike and searches were the latest step in a series of drug-related scandals that have stricken this historic race. This morning, crowds along the roadway whistled, booed and refused to give way as the riders went by. This evening, police searched three more team hotels near the stage's end at the eastern-central city of Aix-les-Bains.
The rider protests today were over what was said to be excessive police treatment of members of the Dutch team TVM Tuesday night and early this morning. Riders were interrogated and tested for hours at the hospital station in Albertville in the Alps, not allowed to eat and released to compete with relatively little sleep. The team's coach and doctor were being held by police as part of the drug investigation.
"We were treated like livestock, like criminals" said TVM rider Jeroen Blijlevens afterward, adding that police had taken urine, blood and hair samples from the riders.
Last Friday, all riders for the France-based Festina team, including top French rider Richard Virenque, were barred from further competition after the team's director said from jail that he had supplied them with banned performance-enhancing drugs. Virenque denied drug use and Tour riders engaged in a two-hour racing strike in protest.
The investigation is being led by authorities from the various French cities where drug violations allegedly have occurred. This evening, Gerard Vinsonneau, associate chief prosecutor in the city of Lille, said there was no question of slowing down the inquiry. "We must go to the end," he said on French television. "Even if the investigation process troubles people, we must continue. . . . I realize that the shock between the cycling world and the legal world has been a bit abrupt."
Today's rider strike came this afternoon in the town of Saint-Jorioz, where the day's initial sprint was to begin. After the riders began moving, Riis led the pack, not as the leader but the negotiator. He cycled up to talk to race director Jean-Marie LeBlanc, leaning on the car window as they talked, then fell back to talk to the pack of riders. Le Blanc tried to rally the riders, calling out on his car's speaker system: "We understand the trauma the riders have gone through."
This evening, nearly two hours behind schedule, the remaining competitors presented a bizarre sight as they cycled along at a leisurely pace in the knowledge that their standings for today would not count in the multi-stage race. Some riders chatted with the drivers of their support vehicles and even held onto the car windows and got pulled along, technically an illegal maneuver. Officials cancelled the results of today's stage.
Nearly all riders had torn off their numbers as part of the protest. One of the first to do so was leader Marco Pantini, who cycled slowly as another rider peeled the number off his yellow jersey, the garment that signifies the leading rider. "It's unacceptable that a champion should be treated like an assassin," he said. At the finish, four riders from TVM took the lead, with the apparent support of the other riders, and crossed the finish line holding hands.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company