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Italian rider Ivan Basso (left) attending the team presentation ceremonies for the 2006 Tour de France in Strasbourg, France, on June 29.

Drug Scandal Decimates Tour de France

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June 30, 2006 The top names in cycling are out of the Tour de France after the biggest scandal ever to hit cycling swept through the peloton on the eve of the sport’s marquee event. Pre-race favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich have both been suspended, along with a growing list of other riders, after being named in a far-reaching Spanish investigation into doping and other banned techniques.

ivan basso

ivan basso Italian rider Ivan Basso (left) attending the team presentation ceremonies for the 2006 Tour de France in Strasbourg, France, on June 29.

Ullrich, who won the 1997 Tour, and Basso, winner of last month’s Giro d’Italia, were among 56 cyclists named in a Spanish investigation as having contact with Eufemiano Fuentes, a Spanish doctor charged with running a doping and blood-packing ring out of an apartment in Madrid. Blood packing is a banned technique in which an athlete’s blood is withdrawn and spun in a centrifuge to separate oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which are reinjected at a later date to deliver an untraceable performance boost.

“This development is not a shock, because it is something that we knew was coming,” UCI president Pat McQuaid told Cyclingnews.com Friday. “We have had indications as to who is going to be involved, and now we have the actual facts.”

Though none of the riders named in the investigation have been found guilty of cheating, their mere associations with the investigation—in a sport desperate to clean up its image—was enough to warrant their suspensions by their teams, according to several reports.

“The only thing I can tell you is that the information is clear enough and didn’t leave any doubt,” said Luuc Eisenga, spokesman for Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Eisenga said the team received information, including documents from the Spanish government, implicating Ullrich and teammate Oscar Sevilla, along with sporting director Rudi Pevenage. Sevilla and Pevenage were also suspended.

Basso, second in last year’s Tour, had been picked by many to assume Lance Armstrong’s mantle as the world’s top cyclist. “It’s my responsibility to suspend Basso,” CSC director Bjarne Riis told The New York Times. “I need to think of the team—that’s the most important thing. I have confidence in Ivan. But it is up to him and his lawyers to prove these allegations false.”

Also named in the investigation are Francisco Mancebo, who finished fourth last year, Joseba Beloki, twice a third-place finisher in the Tour, and American Tyler Hamilton, who is currently serving a two-year ban for blood doping. Mancebo announced his retirement from cycling later in the day, according to Cyclingnews.com. None of the suspended Tour starters will be replaced, leaving the race with a shortened list of competitors as it gets under way with Saturday’s Prologue in Strasbourg.

“I hope we can all start serenely on Saturday,” Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc told Cyclingnews.com. “This is an organized mafia that spreads doping practices. I hope we can clean up everything now; all the cheats should be kicked out. Then, maybe, we will get an open Tour with clean riders—a Tour in which there is space for ethics, sport, and entertainment.”

For more on the issue of drugs and cycling, read Brian Alexander’s July 2005 article “The Awful Truth Abuout Drugs in Sports”, devoted to drug-testing expert Don Catlin. Then check out Stuart Stevens’s November 2003 piece “Drug Test” about the effects of performance-enhancing drugs.