Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Tour facing uphill struggle
Riders face stringent health checks
Following a series of drug abuse scandals, the annual Tour de France cycle race gets under way amid tough new anti-doping regulations.
The organisers of the world's biggest cycling race hope that attention will be focused not on drugs, but on the sport itself.
Ahead of the start of the race, officials said compulsory blood tests to detect performance-enhancing drugs had cleared all 180 cyclists in this year's Tour de France.
The aim is to restore the reputation of professional cycling, which was badly tarnished after a series of drugs scandals and litigation.
One of the teams in last year's race was expelled following the discovery of a stock of performance-enhancing drugs, and since then a succession of drug abuse allegations has rocked cycling.
The organisers of this year's event have banned two teams from this year's event and tried to exclude officials and riders who are implicated, including the famous French cyclist, Richard Virenque who is under criminal investigation in France.
But cycling's governing body, the UCI, has insisted that he is reinstated.
In addition to Virenque, the cycling union ordered Tour officials to rescind a ban on Manolo Saiz, sporting director of Spain's ONCE team.
Many top stars of the cycling world are not be competing in the Tour, among them defending champion Marco Pantani.
The Italian had said the course did not suit him.
But his place would have been in jeopardy anyway after he was kicked out of the Tour of Italy last month. A blood test showed he might have used a drug that increases stamina.
The two previous winners, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Bjarne Riis of Denmark, are both injured.
British rider Chris Boardman will be hoping to pull on the first yellow jersey of this year's Tour after Saturday's prologue time trial.
Boardman's speciality is the Tour prologue - the stage is basically the world championship for the distance, and Boardman has won three.
The rider from the Wirral has finished just one Tour out of five starts, suffering bad luck with crashes apart from in 1996, when he finally reached Paris.
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