No clear answers amid cycling's latest scandal
STRASBOURG, France -- That archaic French form of punishment, the guillotine, was revived Friday at the world's most famous bicycle race. The top of the Tour de France field was summarily lopped off after names were finally named in official documents that made their way across the border from a Spanish doping investigation.
Ivan Basso is gone, leaving his CSC team, which includes three U.S. riders, leaderless. Germany's Jan Ullrich is out, his quixotic quest to repeat his precocious 1997 Tour victory likely over for good now. Spain's Francisco Mancebo received the news of his suspension by saying he'd quit the sport.
Alexander Vinokourov, the Kazakh rider who has livened things up the past few years with his attacking style, wasn't even implicated in the scandal but lost his ride after five of his Astana-Wurth teammates were named.
Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo and Vinokourov finished second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, behind Lance Armstrong last year. All of them will leave their own sad trails behind in this race, but Ullrich and Basso's absences will be felt the most.
You think Armstrong's departure is affecting cycling interest in the United States? Just watch the drop-off in Germany now, where no one cared about the sport before Ullrich, the red-haired, ruddy faced kid from Rostock in the former East Germany, emerged a decade ago. Some German popularity polls put him right up there with Michael Schumacher, the revered Formula One driver.
I can attest to the buzz Ullrich generated, just having spent three weeks in Germany covering the World Cup. In every train station newsstand all over the country, racks and racks of magazine covers displayed one image: "Ulli," clad in the distinctive hot pink of his T-Mobile team. For one month each summer, at least, he got more face time than most supermodels.
People grumbled about his underachieving ways -- he finished second five times, and third once -- but they also loved him. He was human. He gained weight in the offseason and occasionally partied too hearty. Don't we all. Good thing there's that little soccer tournament going on to distract sports fans in his homeland.
Basso was Italy's brightest Tour hope since the controversial and flamboyant 1998 winner Marco Pantani, who later died apparently of an accidental drug overdose, his career ruined by doping charges. Italy is not about to fall out of love with cycling, but Basso was a particularly endearing character who fulfilled a bedside promise to his dying mother by winning the Tour of Italy last month.
Pulling these guys off the start line poses a few problems for those of us raised on innocent-until-proven-guilty. Barry Bonds wouldn't be playing baseball right now if these standards were applied in the United States. Either cycling is contorting itself to prove it's doing everything it can to rid the sport of cheats, or there's specific, damning detail in those Spanish files that no one's talking about yet.
Trying to sort out who was a suspect and whose name was being thrown up on the Internet like pasta on a wall has been pretty frustrating for the reporters bunkered in at the Tour press center just outside downtown Strasbourg.
A rider's mug shot would go up on a Web site, then come down. There's still no evidence aside from what's been in the Spanish media, no indictments, no charges, but many European outlets have rushed to print lists of the condemned, seemingly not abashed by the fact that the numbers and names change hourly.
Vinokourov's team appeared on the first Tour roster with the French word for "pending" scrawled across it. A race spokesman approached me at one point and asked if any reporters had been over to see the boys at the team hotel. "We keep trying to call the press officer, but he's not answering," he said.
Finally, the official race roster appeared with Vino's team scrubbed. A concise official statement accompanied it, saying the team had voluntarily withdrawn, but meanwhile rumors of day-long, contentious negotiations swirled around the press room. Maybe the prime minister of Kazakhstan was involved? He's also the head of the country's cycling federation, and presumably a big cycling fan.
Getting back to that matter of interest in the United States, I'm not sure how many people were hanging on the Basso-Ullrich battle anyway. Here are three big reasons I think the Tour is still well worth watching when it begins Saturday with the 4.4-mile prologue time trial:
• Wide-open racing. That formula followed by Armstrong and his omnipotent teams is really out the window now with two of the strongest teams in the Tour beheaded. There will be daily attacks and breakaways and the overall leader's yellow jersey is probably going to be passed around like a relay baton. Fun stuff.
• The all-Anglo podium. Don't laugh. Levi Leipheimer, the intense leader of the Gerolsteiner team, has finished in the top 10 three times and he's hot, having just won the Dauphine Libere tune-up race last month. Floyd Landis, fondly dubbed the "Mennonite menace" by fans familiar with his upbringing in Pennsylvania's Amish country, might be the best all-around rider left in the race. Armstrong's longtime sidekick, George Hincapie, is a dark horse contender, and Aussie Cadel Evans should be in the mix.
• David Millar. The only prominent rider ever to confess to doping outside a witness stand, the former world champion and three-time Tour stage winner from Great Britain is back after a two-year suspension and preaching the gospel of cleanliness. He's a time-trial specialist and a lot of Tour sages think he's got a great chance to win the prologue. If he does, that could be a bigger positive force for cleaning up the sport than any police investigation.
Fasten your chin straps.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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