15 of original 21 teams remain in Tour de France
Posted: Thursday July 30, 1998 09:40 AM
AIX-LES-BAINS, France (CNN/SI) -- The saga that is the Tour de France continued Thursday when, despite the withdrawal of Spanish teams Kelme and Vitalcio, riders began the 218-kilometer (135.5 miles) trek to Neuchatel, Switzerland, a little after 11 :30 a.m. (0930 GMT).
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.
Three other Spanish teams - Banesto, ONCE and Riso-Scotti - quit after Wednesday's 17th stage. Festina was expelled July 17 after its team director, Bruno Roussel, admitted to the use of performance enhancers within the team.
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.
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.
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, 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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