Tour taking tougher stand

Updated: July 2, 2004, 9:35 AM ET

LIEGE, Belgium, July 2 -- Tour de France organizers, desperate to avoid more doping scandals, will sacrifice innocent riders if necessary, according to Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc.

"We're prepared to see riders miss the start despite being innocent. It's a protective measure," Leblanc said. "The joy of a new Tour start is being tarnished ... with books, films and allegations by people who've turned doping into a trade but are not trying to help us.

"You spend most of your time and energy having to defend yourself, to explain and convince but I see the decisions made about (France's Cedric) Vasseur, (Italian Danilo) Di Luca and possibly others as a big step."

Italy's Danilo Di Luca, among 14 Italian riders charged in a doping probe in Italy, was replaced by youngster David Roosli in a goodwill gesture by his Italian team Saeco. Three other riders involved in the case are on the Tour's starting list.

Leblanc has pledged to get rid of the cyclists involved or charged in doping cases and has put pressure on teams to drop riders whose reputations have been tarnished by recent scandals.

The man who took over the Tour in 1989 and kept it going despite the shockwave of the 1998 Festina doping scandal said he felt that the tougher stance against doping offenders adopted in recent years was starting to pay off.

"I'm glad to see that ethics are gradually taking over from legal wrangles," Leblanc said.

The Tour chief said attempts to rule out riders in the past had been blocked by International Cycling Union rules or because of the risk of lawsuits.

The French team Cofidis, rocked by a doping scandal all year, dropped their British leader, David Millar, who was interviewed by a French magistrate on Thursday, as well as Frenchmen Vasseur and Philippe Gaumont.

"Unlike in 1999, when we tried to stop (Frenchman) Richard Virenque from taking part in the Tour after the Festina scandal, the UCI (is) backing us," Leblanc said.

On Thursday, Spanish rider Gorka Gonzalez failed a blood test following new procedures introduced this year that allow the detection not only of banned substances like EPO but also transfusions.

Spanish outfit Kelme was banned from taking part in the Tour after doping revelations by one of their riders, Jesus Manzano.

"Hopefully, if it's sunny on Saturday and no more dubious cases emerge, we'll have a good start," Leblanc said.

Lance Armstrong could make history in the 2004 Tour if he succeeds in becoming the first man to win six times.

"We're lucky that such a possibility exists because it will make the Tour more interesting for the public," Leblanc said.

"If Armstrong wins six Tours, it's great. If he doesn't, it will show how difficult the Tour is and how exceptional it is to win it even five times."