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Riders Put Tour in Chaos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dogged by an unprecedented drug scandal, the riders in the Tour de France mutinied Wednesday, slowing their pace to an amble and threatening to reduce the 1998 edition of the summer cycling classic to a fiasco.

A disgusted Laurent Jalabert, one of the world’s top cyclists, withdrew from the race along with the rest of the riders from the Spanish ONCE team. Two other squads, Banesto of Spain and Riso Scotti of Italy, also threw in the towel.

The racers were protesting the treatment given the night before to counterparts from the Dutch TVM team, whose hotel rooms were searched by French police. Six TVM riders were taken into custody for more than three hours so samples could be taken of their blood, urine and hair.

“We were treated like animals,” TVM sprinter Jeroen Blijlevens said before the Tour was supposed to resume Wednesday afternoon.

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To vent their outrage, the cyclists turned the 92-mile leg between Albertville and Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps into a sporting farce. In one of the craziest days since the Tour began in 1903, the participants took an hour to cover the first 15 miles, and halted twice to converse and consult.

During the first 20-minute pause, Jean-Marie Leblanc, director of the world’s best-known cycling race, implored the racers to resume. They got back on their cycles but removed the numbers they habitually wear, making it impossible for Tour officials to register performances for the day.

At that point, Jalabert decided he had had enough. Along with his teammates, he left the course in ONCE’s escort automobiles. The Frenchman said he and his comrades were tired of being treated “like criminals.” Banesto and Riso Scotti quit soon afterward.

In the afternoon and evening, French police searched the hotel rooms of at least five teams, including Jalabert’s ONCE, looking for illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

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This year’s Tour has been under a dark cloud since it opened July 12. Three days before the race began, Willy Voet, a trainer from the top-rated Festina team, was caught by French customs officials with more than 400 vials and capsules of pharmaceuticals in his car.

Among the drugs, officials said, were EPOs, synthetic hormones that increase an athlete’s endurance by stimulating the production of red blood cells.

Tour organizers subsequently expelled the whole Festina team, including popular French cyclist Richard Virenque, who has strenuously denied using drugs. But the admission by five of Virenque’s teammates that they had been using drugs has become the leading news story in France, and for days this country has been arguing whether the Tour has become a superhuman contest in which drugs are almost indispensable to win.

“I still don’t know the extent of the sickness, the proportion of doped racers, but I fear it’s very important,” said Daniel Baal, president of the French Cycling Federation. “Today the boil is lanced; we must go all the way. We must know everything.”

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On Wednesday evening, the riders cruised casually into Aix-les-Bains about two hours late, booed by some unhappy spectators. In a show of solidarity, four members of the TVM team were allowed to cross the finish line first. They were followed by Marco Pantani, 28, the Italian hill climber who currently wears the leader’s yellow jersey.

The Tour is scheduled to end Sunday with a 91-mile dash across northern France ending on the Champs-Elysees of Paris. Officials quickly declared Wednesday’s stage, the 17th in this year’s contest, void. But even veteran Tour watchers say it’s now impossible to predict whether this year’s race will go all the way to the finish.

Leblanc, the Tour’s director, said Wednesday that he was in touch with authorities so that future police interrogations and medical tests would take place in the cyclists’ hotel rooms, and not in hospitals or police stations. Leblanc met with Danish racer Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour, who informed the other riders during the second pause of the day of what Leblanc told him. But even Riis didn’t sound certain that this year’s race would run its full course.

“What we’re doing is to save the Tour, to save cycling,” Riis said of Wednesday’s protest. “Tomorrow, it will be another race. I hope we can arrive in Paris.”

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