STRASBOURG, France - A major doping scandal threw the first Tour de France of the post-Lance Armstrong era into chaos Friday, with favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso forced out of the world’s premier cycling race under a cloud of suspicion.
Some in cycling hailed the decision to bar them and other riders implicated in a doping probe in Spain as a breakthrough for efforts to clean up the oft-tainted sport. The scandal could rank as cycling’s biggest, given the high profile of the riders and the large number suspected.
The Tour, already wide open without Armstrong, will now begin on Saturday with no clear favorite to succeed the Texan who retired last year after his record seventh straight win. The race will also have a reduced field of 176 riders, instead of the 189 originally expected, because teams agreed not to replace those riders being sent home for suspected doping.
The scandal, brewing for weeks in Spain, broke open in the space of a few hours in Strasbourg, the starting point for this year’s three-week, 2,272-mile trek across France and neighboring countries.
Late Thursday night, Spanish authorities sent race organizers more than 40 pages summarizing police investigations into a ring that allegedly supplied riders and other athletes with banned drugs, doping expertise and performance-enhancing blood transfusions.
The police report implicated nine riders — Basso and Ullrich included — who were signed up for this Tour, cycling’s governing body said.
Alessandro Trovati / AP
CSC rider Ivan Basso of Italy speaks to reporters outside his hotel in Strasbourg on Friday.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, and other members of his T-Mobile squad were heading to a previously scheduled news conference Friday morning when they got word that he, teammate Oscar Sevilla and Ullrich’s longtime adviser Rudy Pevenage were implicated.
“We kindly asked our bus driver to turn around and go back to the hotel,” team spokesman Luuc Eisenga said.
The information implicating Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage was “clear enough and didn’t leave any doubt,” he said, refusing to elaborate.
Neither Spanish authorities nor Tour organizers released the full report. But Spanish media reports linked Ullrich, Basso and more than 50 other cyclists to Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor who was among five people arrested in May when police seized banned performance-enhancers at a Madrid doping clinic.
Outgoing Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the Spanish investigators cited doping “dosages” apparently prescribed for Ullrich, Basso, Sevilla and Francesco Mancebo, who was also withdrawn from the Tour by his team, AG2R.
Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage had previously signed declarations that they never had contact with Fuentes. But the Spanish probe indicated otherwise, said T-Mobile spokesman Stefan Wagner.
Asked whether T-Mobile would consider cutting ties with Ullrich completely, he replied “certainly ... we are now demanding evidence of his innocence.”
2010 Tour de France