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1998 Tour de France

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14 of 21 teams remain for 19th leg

Depleted Tour gets under way as TVM team withdraws

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Posted: Thursday September 24, 1998 11:24 AM

  Jeron Blijlevens of the TVM team prepares to join his teammates as they pulled out of the race Friday morning, further reducing the field at the Tour AP

LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, Switzerland (CNN/SI) -- The saga that is this year's Tour de France continued when the field got under way minus Team TVM Friday.

Plagued by the ongoing drugs scandal overshadowing the race, just 96 cyclists started the race's 242-kilometer (150-mile) 19th leg in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, which was heading to Autun, France.

The withdrawal of the Netherlands-based team further reduces the field from the 21 teams at the start at the start of the tour to Friday's 14 teams.

Jean-Francois Pescheux, the Tour's sporting director, said the TVM team -- which is at the center of the drug scandal -- had informed him of its withdrawal. Staff at the hotel where the team had been staying said they left early today for the Netherlands.

The team cyclists are supposed to report for questioning in the French city of Reims on Monday following the end of the Tour.

"The cyclists say they are tired and don't want to continue," Pescheux said. "They're within their rights. We're a little disappointed."

Meanwhile, police said TVM masseur Jann Moors, being held in custody, was to be questioned Friday by an investigating judge in the city of Lille.

Only three days remain in the tour, which has now lost seven teams and has fewer than 100 racers because of the doping scandal.

Two teams pulled out Thursday to protest police behavior, and investigators for the first time prevented a cyclist from competing after finding drugs in his possession.

Rodolfo Massi of Italy, who rides for the Casino team, was still in police custody for questioning after drugs were found in his room during a search earlier in the week, according to prosecutors in the northern city of Lille, where the probe is centered.

The treatment of the TVM team on Tuesday night was the focal point of the Tour riders' protest the following day that led to the annulment of the 17th stage.

The team's riders, suspected of drug abuse, were taken to hospital by police and given lengthy medical examinations, including blood, urine and hair tests.

Thursday's leg from Aix-les-Bains to Neuchatel seemed almost normal. 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.

Tom Steels edged Erik Zabel in a sprint finish to post his third stage victory of the tour. Stuart O'Grady of Australia was third.

Steels has won a stage each in the three countires through which the tour has passed - Ireland, France and Switzerland.

Steels' victory the day after the disarray Wednesday also brought to mind his other victory last Friday when the riders first protested with a two-hour delay at the start of the stage.

All this is wearing on the riders.

"I'm just trying to get to Paris in one piece," said Frankie Andreu of the U.S. Postal Service team. "It's been kind of hard, mentally."

"We were all afraid to give up after 20 days of racing," Pantani said. "I've made sacrifices to get the yellow jersey."

Pantani has a lead of 5 minutes, 42 seconds over American Bobby Julich with defending champion Jan Ullrich another 14 seconds back.

After Friday's stage, there is the final time trial on Saturday at Le Creusot. In the previous time trial, Ullrich beat Pantani by 4:21.

Before Thursday's start, two Spanish teams, Kelme and Vitalcio, angrily quit the field, joining two other Spanish teams and an Italian team that quit Wednesday. Another team, Festina, was thrown out on July 17 after police found drugs in a team masseur's car -- sparking the current scandal.

There was uncertainty as to whether the race would go on at all. Many riders, angered at the growing investigation, had threatened to pull out entirely.

Some, like former world road champion Luc Leblanc, took it upon themselves to quit.

"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," Leblanc said.  

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