Sunday, July 19, 1998 Published at 04:35 GMT 05:35 UK
Chirac joins Tour drugs debate
Hung out to dry: Festina team ponders the future
The French President, Jacques Chirac has criticised the use of drugs in sport, saying it should be condemned as firmly as possible.
He said those who supply athletes with drugs should be punished unmercifully.
The Festina team was excluded from the competition after its director, Bruno Roussel, admitted supplying drugs to enhance the cyclists' performance.
The stars had said they would ignore their expulsion and turn up at the time trial stage from Meyrignac L'Eglise to Correze.
Festina team leader Richard Virenque, last year's runner-up in the Tour, threatened to bring a lawyer 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."
After a meeting with Mr Leblanc near the start of the stage, the riders decided to take no further part.
Virenque, four-time King of the Mountains, and team-mate Alex Zulle, had been expected to be among the top finishers in this year's Tour. The team also included world road champion Laurent Brochard.
Festina is the first entire team to be expelled from the event since World War II.
"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.
"It seems to me that the sports ethic, the morality of the Tour are the most important things", he said.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, Miguel Rodriguez, chairman of the Festina watch company, was expected to travel to France for a meeting which could signal the end of one of cycling's greatest teams.