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Saturday, July 18, 1998 Published at 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK

Festina riders drop threat to race

Hung out to dry: Festina team ponders the future

Festina's cyclists have pulled back from their threat to race in Saturday's stage of the Tour de France after the team were thrown out of the event amid a drugs scandal.

Only hours after the world number one team's director Bruno Roussel admitted a "concerted" and controlled doping programme for riders, the stars swore they would turn up at Saturday's time trial stage from Meyrignac L'Eglise to Correze.

The BBC's Simon Brotherton: "This is unprecedented"
The Tour's director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, told the riders their results would be ignored.

But after a meeting with Mr Leblanc near the start of the stage, the riders decided to take no further part.

Bruno Roussel and the team doctor, Eric Ryckaert, were charged under French anti-drugs laws on Friday.

Their arrests came a week after one of the team's masseurs, Willy Voet, was apprehended by police carrying 400 bottles of a performance-enhancing drug.

[ image: Roussel: Doping was
Roussel: Doping was "controlled"
Festina, which includes four-time King of the Mountains Richard Virenque and world road champion Laurent Brochard, is the first entire team to be expelled from the event since it resumed in 1947. Virenque, last year's runner up, and team-mate Alex Zulle, had been 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.

Michel Gros, Roussel's replacement at the team, said he could not deny the allegations, 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: Virenque: Protesting innocence]
Virenque: Protesting innocence
Pascal Herve, Laurent Dufaux, Christophe Moreau, Armin Meier, Didier Rous and Neil Stephens are the other six riders thrown out.

Reacting to the ban, Festina team leader Richard Virenque, last year's runner-up in the Tour, initially threatened to bring a laywer to the starting line to witness if the riders were prevented from starting.

He stressed he knew nothing about doping, adding: "You can work with people and not be aware of everything about them."

Meanwhile, Miguel Rodriguez, chairman of the Festina watch company, is expected with lawyers in France on Saturday for a meeting which could signal the end of one of cycling's greatest teams.

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

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