Riders stop tour again ... and again
Tour de France officials nullify 17th stage
Posted: Wednesday July 29, 1998 03:46 PM
SAINT-JORIOZ, France (CNN/SI) -- The 17th stage of the Tour de France closed with warm applause from the spectators, acrimony on the part of the cyclists and the organizers voiding the stage's results after the riders stopped the race twice in protest.
TVM's riders led the way across the finish line, their hands linked and lifted in a symbolic victory, two hours later than the stage had been expected to finish.
The riders were protesting the treatment that the TVM cyclists received at the hands of the police in Albertville on Tuesday and the general method the police have used in investigating the drug scandal surrounding this year's tour.
Wednesday's stage died before it even started, when all the riders adhered to a go-slow policy and then stopped the first time 32 kilometers (20 miles) into the 149-kilometer (92.5-mile) leg from the Alpine ski station of Albertville to Aix-les-Bains.
Some of the 133 riders began to race again, only to fall into line with the go-slow decision. Others stripped off their race numbers as the peleton coasted its way to the finish.
Police, meanwhile, were busy. They descended on the Chambery hotel of the ONCE team of French star Laurent Jalabert for the second search in two days, and took up positions around the Novotel hotel in Chambery, where the Polti and Casino teams were staying.
Police closed the ONCE team's Chateau de Candie hotel to reporters before apparently searching the place. They were seen
removing garbage bags full of objects from a camping car bearing the team insignia, then sealing the vehicle off.
Jalabert had led the riders' protest before his team simply dropped out of the go-slow race.
It was the second protest by riders since the July 11 start of the cycling classic, which has been overshadowed by the doping scandal that has knocked the Festina team out of the race.
Last Friday, riders held up the 12th stage for two hours in a similar protest.
On Tuesday night, members of the Dutch TVM were taken away and held for hours for medical testing while police searched luggage.
More police searches were expected Wednesday evening, and riders feared the same.
"I can't race in this climate of permanent suspicion where we are taken for criminals," Jalabert said on France Info radio.
Jalabert is ranked the No. 1 cyclist in the world by the International Cycling Union (UCI) based on results over the year. Jalabert was the world champion in the time trial last year and has been France's top hope in cycling since Richard Virenque was kicked out of the Tour with his Festina team. Jean-Marie Leblanc appealed over Radio Tour, the race's radio station, for riders to restart the race. To no avail.
However, Leblanc said later that he felt he had assurances that further police action would be done with dignity.
Citing the "traumatism" of the riders, he said in an interview with France 2 television that further testing should involve just a "very, very small number of riders" and "with a maximum of dignity ... at the hotels of the concerned teams and not at police stations."
"Riders merit reaching the apotheosis Sunday in Paris on the Champs Elysees," Leblanc said, referring to Sunday's finish on the famed avenue.
A number of ex-Festina riders are now members of other teams and are riding on the tour. Judicial police from Lille, where the drug investigation began, were interested in talking to those riders.
Marco Pantani, the leader of this year's race, said, "The pack stopped because they are continuing to persecute the riders.
"We will restart when we have some guarantees from the police that we will be treated well. We want to be treated like athletes and not as delinquents. We are tired of being treated that way."
After the race restarted Wednesday, Bjarne Riis, the 1996 champion, seemed to be acting as a spokesman for the riders on the route. He slowed to talk with Leblanc while riding.
Then suddenly the riders stopped again.
Leblanc stopped his car and got out and talked with the riders and even put a comforting arm around Riis.
Leblanc got his car and the riders restarted, looking more serious about completing the stage this time.
However, the fans along the route were divided in their reaction. Some applauded the riders as they went past, but others were making angry gestures and jeering and whistling against them.
Pantani went immediately to the front, perhaps to calm things down.
"Some riders were in tears. They were saying, 'I'm only doing my job, please leave me alone,'" said former champion Stephen Roche, speaking on Eurosport.
Roche said he spoke to Jalabert before he withdrew.
"Jalabert was crying. He said, 'I cannot ride a bike in these conditions. I prefer to work in a factory and be a normal person than be treated like this. I'm here doing a job. Police have no consideration for us riders. I don't want to go along at 10 mph and be part of a circus... Ullrich and Pantani are the only ones who want to finish this race.'"
The race had been plagued by the drug scandal since before the beginning of the Tour and the way certain riders were treated.
The Dutch TVM team started the latest leg of the tour following medical tests Tuesday night to determine whether the racers took illegal drugs.
The cyclists from TVM were tested Tuesday for illegal substances, the same day French authorities placed two top team officials under formal investigation for allegedly supplying racers with EPO, a performance enhancing rug.
French doctors administered blood, urine and capillary tests Tuesday and the racers reached their hotel only about midnight.
Jeroen Blijlevens, who took the fourth stage of the tour two weeks ago, said the TVM racers were very tired emotionally. "For myself, I am exhausted."
TVM came under the spotlight when it emerged that EPO had been found in the car of one of its officials in March.
Another team came under suspicion Tuesday when French police seized suspect medication in a van driven by officials of the Bigmat team in Chambery.
The drugs were sent to a police laboratory in the city of Lyon for analysis, police said. It was reported that there were no illegal products in the seizure later.
Earlier in the Tour the Festina team was thrown out of the Tour after its director admitted a concerted effort to administer banned substances of illegal drugs to the riders to improve performances.
Since then a number of the Festina team riders admitted to using EPO and other products although the Festina star, Richard Virenque, has denied using the drugs.
After the protest last Friday following the rest day, things appeared to calm down for a few days.There were two stages in the Alps where Pantani took over the lead from last year's champion Jan Ullrich.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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