Steels steals sprint
Belgian wins 18th stage; Pantani retains lead
Posted: Thursday July 30, 1998 02:57 PM
NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (CNN/SI) -- Tom Steels of Belgium sprinted past Erik Zabel at the finish line to win the 18th stage of the Tour de France in a time of four hours, 53 minutes and 27 seconds.
Stuart O'Grady of Australia took third place.
It was Steels' third stage win in this year's tour, after winning the second and 12th stages.
Marco Pantani of Italy retains the yellow jersey and leads the tour by five minutes, 42 seconds.
America's Bobby Julich is second and defending tour champion Jan Ullrich of Germany is in third place.
The pack whittled down an early lead by a quartet of riders that included two former yellow jersey wearers, Stephen Heulot and Laurent Desbiens, both of France.
The sprint finish began with just a few kilometers to go.
But for most of the day, the cycling was overshadowed by the riders' protests about an investigation into alleged drug abuse.
Earlier in the day, Spanish teams Kelme and Vitalcio angrily quit the field, bringing to five the number of teams to have left the race since it began.
The Tour's other three Spanish teams -- Banesto, ONCE and Riso-Scotti -- all withdrew Wednesday. Festina was thrown out for drug abuse on July 17.
Of the 21 teams that started this year's Tour, only 15 remain. With Thursday's pullouts, the riders numbered 102, down from 116 the day before and from 189 at the start.
Despite the new pullouts, Thursday's 218-kilometer (136-mile) stage stretched from Aix-Les-Bains, France to Neuchatel, Switzerland and included the final mountain in this year's tour, the Col de la Faucille in the Alps started on schedule shortly after 11:30 a.m. (0930 GMT).
Three days away from the Paris finish line, race organizers were scrambling to calm the revolt over repeated police searches and testing in the drug investigation, and said the Tour would continue.
The latest teams to quit blamed the atmosphere around the tour.
"The riders were insulted in the climb to Revard by the Spanish public," said Alvaro Pino, director of the Spanish team Kelme, referring to one of the Alpine peaks in Wednesday's segment. "We received some threats."
The team's Fernando Escartin was in fourth place in the overall standings in the three-week race. Pino told reporters he would resign as team chief at the end of the season.
"Everybody needs to make their own decision. Those who decided not to continue today were right, but those who are leaving the race are also right," said former French champion Luc Leblanc with the Polti team, who pulled out Thursday.
The drug probe was pressing on. Shortly before midnight Wednesday, police detained rider Rodolfo Massi of the Casino team, the Francaise des Jeux team director Marc Madiot and an unnamed doctor, judicial sources said. Police found small quantities of cortisone-based drugs in Massi's room, the public prosecutor's office in Lille said Thursday.
The detention of Massi, leader in the mountain climbing standings, was the first time the probe blocked a rider from competing.
Police said they also searched vehicles and hotel rooms Wednesday night belonging to the teams Francaise des Jeux, la ONCE, and Casino.
Police said Thursday that no illegal substances were found among medication seized Tuesday by customs officers from the Bigmat team.
Wednesday's 17th stage will rank as one of the most chaotic in the tour's history.
After starting out in Albertville and going through the motions for the first hour or so, the pack slowed and stopped -- ironically just past one of the sprint banners which usually has some of the fastest action of the race.
After discussion, the pack restarted, only to stop again.
Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour's director, assured the riders that further police action would be carried out "with a maximum of dignity ... at the hotels of the concerned teams and not at police stations."
With that, the riders took off again only to please the public.
However the public had mixed emotions. Some shouted at the riders and made angry gestures. Others cheered.
The riders ended the day's stage more than two and a half hours behind schedule in Aix-les-Bains. Tour judge Joel Menard announced that the stage was annulled.
The Tour has been plagued with doping allegations since its July 11 start in Dublin, Ireland.
"They're robbing our dreams ... " said Thierry Bourguignon of the TVM team that's been under investigation. "I have the impression the Tour is finished. I'm sick."
Laurent Jalabert, France's top rider and world champion, quit Wednesday.
"I can't race in this climate of permanent suspicion where we are taken for criminals," Jalabert said on France Info radio.
Since 1903, only the two world wars have halted the world's most prestigious cycling competition.The race finishes in Paris on Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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