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Europe: Tour De France To Kick Off Amid Doping Scandal

Alexander Vinokourov, shown training on June 29, hopes to be allowed to improve on his third-place finish of 2005 (epa) PRAGUE, June 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The 93rd Tour de France cycling race begins on July 1, but as so often in the sport, allegations of doping are dominating the headlines heading into the opening stage in Strasbourg.

The charges have placed the participation of Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov's team in doubt. The other big change is that Lance Armstrong, the former seven-time champion, is absent after retiring last year.

Armstrong's absence has put the spotlight directly on some top riders who struggled to keep up with the American champion in recent years at the Tour de France.

Following Armstrong

Italy's Ivan Basso, second last year, is the favorite going into the start, after his triumph last month in the Giro d'Italia.
"As he said when he left the Tour last year: 'No one will ride the Tour
de France like I did. I brought a different way of winning the race.'
Which it was. It was all for one, one for all, with the team." -- Liggett

"Whether I'm stronger, I'm not sure," he says. "I think I'm richer professionally after racing two Tour de Frances at high level. The Tour leaves you in a certain condition, leaves you with something inside -- an added value that can help you win races."

Other favorites in the world's biggest cycling race include Germany's Jan Ullrich and Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov. But both men face a doping scandal in Spain that could prevent them from racing.

Allegations May Be 'Tip Of The Iceberg'

Tour organizers are seeking to force out Vinokourov's Astana-Wurth team amid a growing scandal that has also involved Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion.

No riders have been charged in the Spanish investigation into suspected blood doping. But it has led to several arrests, including that of Manolo Saiz, who directed Vinokourov's team under its previous sponsor, Liberty Seguros.

"Now if, and I have to emphasize if, because this man is innocent until proven guilty, if he has been involved in drug trafficking and therefore administering drugs...." says Phil Liggett, a veteran British cycling journalist. "One has to face facts. Manolo Saiz, one of the biggest men in the business.... I am totally devastated that he has got himself into this situation. And I think we're only hearing the tip of the iceberg now."

Ullrich, Vinokourov In Limbo

The Spanish daily "El Pais" has reported that Spanish investigations show at least 15 Liberty Seguros members were among 58 cyclists who may have received banned substances and blood transfusions in recent years. The riders have not been named.

Lance Armstrong's presence on the Tour will be missed (AFP file photo)

But two Spanish newspapers today reported that Ullrich could be among the 58 cyclists involved in the affair.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, is expected to decide by today on the Tour's bid to force out Astana-Wurth. The Tour has asked the team not to take part for the sake of the race's image.

Vinokourov, third in the 2003 Tour, has said he hopes for a positive decision from the court, adding that there is no evidence against the team.

No One Like Armstrong

Meanwhile, the Tour marches on -- though without the celebrated Armstrong. The absence of the American, who won the race the last seven years in a row, means the end of his "killer" style of winning. Liggett says that style was marked by teammates who sacrificed personal glory for the sake of their leader.

"As he said when he left the Tour last year: 'No one will ride the Tour de France like I did. I brought a different way of winning the race.' Which it was. It was all for one, one for all, with the team," Liggett says.

"He went and wrecked the route every inch of the way, chose the days he would attack and hit them hard whenever he thought he could get most time," Liggett continues. "He was a pathological killer, if you like. Whereas these guys [the other riders] now, they'll take their chances as it comes at them, and they'll go for it when they think the time is right. But the team will not be able to control the race like Lance's team did."

The three-week Tour de France ends on July 23 with the classic stage through central Paris, culminating in the ride down the Champs Elysees.

But well before then, the race is likely to be decided in the grueling mountain stages that begin in the Alps on July 11.

That is, if it is not at least partly decided by a court of law.