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Saturday, July 18, 1998 Published at 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK

Drug scandal team thrown off Tour

Richard Virenque with suspended director Bruno Roussel

The world's leading cycling team Festina has been banned from the sport's most prestigious event after its director admitted a "concerted" programme of giving riders performance enhancing drugs.

The BBC's Simon Brotherton: "This is unprecedented"
Throwing the Tour de France further into crisis, Bruno Roussel and the team doctor, Eric Ryckaert, have been charged under a French anti-drugs law.

The charges come a week after one of the team's masseurs, Willy Voet, was apprehended by police carrying 400 bottles of a drug used to boost performance.

[ image: Team doctor Eric Ryckaert is arrested]
Team doctor Eric Ryckaert is arrested
Race organisers said the crisis leaves the Tour in "the eye of a storm", one of its worst scandals since testing was introduced 30 years ago.

Festina, which includes four time King of the Mountains Richard Virenque and world road champion Laurent Brochard, is the first team to be expelled since the Second World War.

Virenque, last year's runner up, and team-mate Alex Zulle, were expected to be among the top finishers in this year's Tour.

Bruno Roussel's lawyer reveals the "co-ordinated system" of doping (in French)
Roussel's lawyer Thibault de Montbrial issued a statement admitting the policy to supply drugs.

"The objective was to improve performances under strict medical control in order to avoid the unauthorised personal supply to cyclists causing grave attacks on their health which could have been the case in the past," he said.

Lille magistrates had said the riders could continue in the tour and be questioned afterwards, but the Tour organisers moved swiftly to separate the scandal from the race.

'Difficult decision'

Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said he wanted to "end the unhealthy climate" that has pervaded the competition.

[ image: Leblanc: Festina banned for
Leblanc: Festina banned for "morality of the Tour"
"It seems to me that the sports ethic, the morality of the Tour are the most important things", he said.

The decision was "difficult but essential" for the sport, he added.

However Roussel's replacement as Festina team director said the nine riders have been made scapegoats.

Michel Gros said he could not deny that drugs may have been supplied, but added the "entire pack" of Tour riders were involved in drugs.

Rider denies knowledge

Festina had planned to begin its assault as the Tour entered its critical second week and mountain stages.

[ image: Herve: Protested innocence]
Herve: Protested innocence
Pascal Herve, Laurent Dufaux, Christophe Moreau, Armin Meier, Didier Rous and Neil Stephens are the other six riders thrown out.

Herve strenuously denied taking banned substances, saying he only took recuperative products to maintain fitness.

"I have taken years to do what I do," he said. "There is no reason for me to retire."

Some of the riders are reported to be considering a challenge to the ban, saying that they are clean of drugs.

EPO, the drug used by Festina, boosts the amount of oxygen carried in the blood supply. It can lead to blood clots and is virtually undetectable.

Jean-Claude Killy, president of the Tour's organising committee, said: "We are in the eye of a storm.

"We are sorry for what has happened, but the Tour has known worse storms and there will be more in the future."

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