Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 20 News List

Tour to start under cloud of suspicion

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LONDON

The cloud of doping suspicion that has hung over the Tour de France for much of the past year has turned into a fog so thick that the 94th edition of the race, scheduled to start in London today, seems almost an afterthought.

No rider is expected to dominate the tour, in part because many of the cyclists who would have been expected to do well are not competing.

Floyd Landis, who finished first last year, is awaiting the result of an arbitration hearing over his positive drug test in last year's tour. Ivan Basso, who finished second in 2005 acknowledged his involvement in a doping scheme and has been barred from racing for two years. Jan Ullrich, the winner in 1997 and the perennial runner-up to Lance Armstrong, retired after being barred from last year's race on suspicion of doping.

Many riders are bristling over being forced by cycling's governing body to sign a statement guaranteeing that they will give up a year's salary if they are caught doping. While few said they disagreed with the spirit of the statement, they complained that it was forced on them without their consultation.

Some riders expressed hope that the overwhelmingly negative atmosphere around their sport would begin to dissipate.

"Last year, the atmosphere was so difficult for us, and still things did not change," Christophe Moreau, the top French rider said at a pre-race news conference.

"This year, things are changing," Moreau said. "They need to change, for the sake of the teams, the sponsors and the tour organization. We need to get the credibility of cycling back."

That will not be easy. This week Alessandro Petacchi, who was expected to be a top contender for several stage victories in the race's first week, was withdrawn from the race by his Italian team, Milram.

The withdrawal came after the Italian Olympic Committee recommended a one-year ban for Petacchi because a drug test in May, during the Giro d'Italia, showed he had in his system too much of an asthma medication that he had a doctor's permission to use.

The race is considered a wide-open affair, with any one of nearly a dozen riders viewed as a possible winner. If anyone is considered the favorite, it is Alexander Vinokourov, a 33-year old Kazakh.

Vinokourov has also faced doping suspicions after acknowledging last week that he had worked with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who was found guilty of sporting fraud and malpractice in 2004 but who won an appeal two years later. Vinokourov said he consulted Ferrari for training purposes but not for medical advice.

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