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Tour wants yellow jersey back after '96 winner admits doping

5/25/2007

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Bjarne Riis became the first Tour de
France winner to admit using performance-enhancing drugs to win the
sport's premier race, further eroding cycling's credibility after a
series of doping confessions.

His admission Friday means the top three finishers in the 1996
Tour have all been linked to doping -- and two have admitted
cheating.

The retired Dane said he used the blood-booster EPO from 1993 to
1998, including during his 1996 Tour victory, confirming years of
speculation that he benefited from banned substances. He also
admitted taking cortisone and human growth hormone, but didn't say
when.

"I have taken doping. I have taken EPO," Riis said at a
televised news conference. "I have made errors and I would like to
apologize."

EPO -- or erythropoietin -- is a synthetic hormone that stimulates
the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

Riis said he no longer considered himself a worthy winner of the
Tour, and indicated he would be willing to give back the title.

"My jersey is at home in a cardboard box," said Riis, now
manager of the Danish team CSC. "They are welcome to come and get
it. I have my memories for myself."

Cycling's governing body said even though time limits for
sanctioning Riis have expired, it "urges the former rider to
return his yellow jersey, the symbol of his victory."

Tour director Christian Prudhomme used even stronger words:

"Bjarne Riis said himself that he is did not deserve to have
won the Tour in 1996 because he cheated. I think the same thing,
because he has soiled the yellow jersey," Prudhomme told The
Associated Press when reached by telephone. "Seeing as he did not
deserve to win, does he deserve to lead a major cycling team?"

Riis' confession comes while 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis tries
desperately to keep his jersey and awaits a ruling in his doping
case.

Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone and could be
stripped of his title and banned for two years if found guilty. An
arbitration panel considered his case in a nine-day hearing that
ended this week. Prudhomme already said he didn't consider Landis
to be last year's winner.

The runner-up to Riis in the 1996 race was Germany's Jan Ullrich
and Frenchman Richard Virenque was third.

Ullrich retired in February after being implicated in Operation
Puerto, the Spanish investigation into an alleged blood doping
ring. Last month, German authorities matched Ullrich's DNA sample
to blood bags seized in Spain. He has always denied doping.

Virenque was kicked out of the 1998 Tour de France because of
his involvement in the Festina scandal. His Festina team was
ejected from the Tour after customs officers found a large stash of
performance-enhancing drugs in a team car.

After denying doping, Virenque later admitted to it in a tearful
court confession.

Riis' admission was the latest in a string of doping confessions
from prominent cyclists, and caused the Danish government to
strongly condemn Riis -- once seen as a national hero as the only
Dane to win the Tour.

"He has behaved unethically and immorally," said Danish
Culture Minister Brian Mikkelsen, whose department oversees sports.
"It is totally despicable."

Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, however, took a different
view.

"I never thought I'd see the day that this would happen," he
said in a statement. "Mr. Riis' decision is courageous, and I hope
other cyclists will follow suit."

So does the cycling federation, saying the confessions were
"extremely positive."

"The law of silence no longer applies. Each person must now
assume the full consequences of their actions," the agency said.

Riis' confession came on the same day the Italian Olympic
Committee prosecutors recommended that 2006 Giro d'Italia cycling
champion Ivan Basso be banned for 21 months for his involvement in
the Spanish doping scandal Operation Puerto.

Basso was suspended by the Italian cycling federation last week,
after acknowledging involvement in the Spanish blood-doping
investigation. He confessed to "attempted doping" but said he
never actually went through with it.

On Thursday, Eric Zabel and Rolf Aldag, two Germans who were
support riders for Riis on the Telekom team, admitted using EPO
while riding for the team in the 1990s.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in on the sport's
future, urging cyclists who used doping to come clean and break a
"cartel of silence."

"The confessions and investigations so far are not sufficient
to sort things out," Merkel said.

Riis' CSC team recently launched what it described as the most
rigorous anti-doping program in cycling. He said he planned to
remain with the team, adding that he hoped his confession would
allow riders to focus on the future.

CSC spokesman Ole Egeblad said the main team sponsor was
"surprised" by Riis' admission, and would talk to team officials
before deciding whether to continue its support.

Until now, Riis has repeatedly denied taking performance
enhancing drugs during his 14-year career as a professional
cyclist. In 2000, he quit professional cycling under doctors'
orders because of a knee injury.

Former Telekom massage therapist Jef d'Hont said in a book that
two doctors gave EPO to some of the team's top riders, including
Riis and Ullrich, who won the Tour de France in 1997.