Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tour de France starts with another drug scandal

A major doping scandal in Madrid has thrown the 2006 Tour de France into chaos. 13 riders including three favourites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Francisco Mancebo have been suspended from the race. The scandal had been bubbling since May when Spanish police raided several addresses and found large quantities of anabolic steroids, equipment used for blood transfusions and more than 100 packs of frozen blood. On Thursday this week, Spanish authorities sent race organizers a 40 page document which summarised the police investigation into the drug ring. The police concluded that the ring supplied Tour riders with banned drugs and performance-enhancing blood transfusions. The organisers took immediate action to ban the impacted teams.

Ullrich, Basso and Mancebo finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively in last year’s Tour. Basso has denied any wrongdoing and has said he's still determined to compete in the race. Organisers however are suggesting even more riders could be suspended, all 21 teams have decided to exclude anyone who's implicated in the doping probe - even without proof of drug taking. Allegations of doping have dogged the Tour de France since its inception in 1903. The current scandal is the biggest to hit the sport since 1998 when the entire top French team Festina was kicked out of the tour after the discovery of a large supply of drugs in a team car. The team admitted to systematic drug use under the direction of their doctors.

The Tour starts today with a prologue in the city of Strasbourg. It is the first tour of post-Lance Armstrong era. The legendary Armstrong has won the last seven tours. The last winner before him was the great mountain climber Marco Pantani “the Pirate”(so called for his bandana and aggressive riding style) who died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. The last living tour winner before Armstrong is Ullrich who won in 1997. His suspension from the race means that there are no former winners in this year’s race.

Le Tour is the world’s largest and most gruelling annual sporting event. The 2006 event now has 176 riders who will complete 3,675kms in over 20 stages (plus today’s 7km prologue) in 23 days. The event finishes on Sunday 23 July in the Champs-Élysées in the centre of Paris. The stages include two time trials and five days in the mountains. The remaining stages are held over relatively flat terrain. But it is in the Pyrenees and the Alps where the race is usually won and lost. Lance Armstrong was phenomenally strong in the mountains. In his 2004 victory, he was the first man since Italian Gino Bartali in 1948 to win three mountain consecutive stages.

The Tour started in 1903 as a publicity stunt for a newspaper called L’Auto (renamed to l'Équipe after World War II due to L'Auto links with the Vichy regime.) It was a 2,500 km race taking place across 19 days, in six stages. Riders were expected to ride day and night, and push themselves to extreme limits. Sixty riders began the race, and the winner was Maurice Garin. The race was hugely popular and succeeded wildly in its marketing goal. Circulation of L’Auto rose from 22,000 to 65,000 after the event. By 1923 they were selling half a million copies. Today, the Tour is organised by the Société du Tour de France, a subsidiary of Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), in the same media group that owns l'Équipe. The tour has taken place every year except during World Wars I and II. The race leader wears the famous maillot jaune, the yellow jersey. The colour yellow was chosen for the colour of L'Auto's newsprint. There are also a green jersey (for sprint points) and the polka dot jersey (for the “king of the mountains”.) Drug allegations have plagued the event almost since day one. Early riders used alcohol or ether to dull the pain. Amphetamines became popular after the war and in 1967 it killed British cyclist Tom Simpson who died while climbing Mont Ventoux. In 2005 seven-time winner Lance Armstrong was accused by l'Équipe of using EPO. He was subsequently cleared by a doping tribunal.

Armstrong is a legend in the sport and has won more Tours than anyone else. Born in 1971 in Plano, Texas, he excelled as a triathlete in his teenage years. He became a professional cyclist aged 16 and was US National champion four years later. By 1996, he had risen to number 1 in the world rankings with a world championship and several stage victories in the Tour de France under his belt. But in October that year his career was rocked by the discovery of testicular cancer. He was told he only had a 50:50 chance of survival. He started aggressive chemotherapy and made a spectacular recovery. By 1999 he was back in the Tour, which was a victory in itself. But he went on to win the prologue before going all the way to win the race. That was the start of the "Tour de Lance" period which saw him add another six titles. Two more Americans are among the favourites for 2006 Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer as well as the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde. But the withdrawals have made the Tour wide open.

The only certainty is that the cycling world will be hailing a new hero in three weeks time in Paris.

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