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Sunday, June 27, 1999 Published at 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK

Cleaning up the peleton

Last year's race saw a sit down protest by riders under siege

The 1998 Tour will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Le Tour de France
Not for Marco Pantani's daring assault on Jan Ullrich in the mountains, but for police acitivity and riders pedalling at a snail's pace in protest.

The affair was a severe jolt to the French, still celebrating their footballers' World Cup win as the Tour started in Dublin.

[ image: Virenque: Tearful after exclusion from race]
Virenque: Tearful after exclusion from race
By then Festina team assistant Willy Voet had already been detained for smuggling a carload of drugs across the Franco-Belgium border.

The authorities arrested the squad's manager and doctor, and the Tour threw France's top team plus its favourite rider off the race.

Richard Virenque tearfully protested his innocence, and maintains his stance despite a year of scandal for the whole sport.

Simon Brotherton of Radio 5 Live: Will the Tour be trouble-free?
Books are now being published to chronicle the events of July 1998, led by the man whose arrest started it all.

Voet's book, Massacre a la Chaine has nothing to do with bicycle chains, but uses the French phrase for serial killing.

[ image:  ]
Like another 1990s chronicle of drug abuse, the film Trainspotting, Voet's sorry story shows how the riders - and their team - chose to choose something else instead of an honest life.

It reveals the author's role in Festina's drug supply programme from 1994, as he kept a diary of each rider's consumption.

This was not for his memoirs, but to ensure each team member paid his share at the season's end.

The book demonstrates the problem facing the authorities, but what has happened since last August?

[ image: Voet: Man whose arrest started it all]
Voet: Man whose arrest started it all
Pantani's own sensational exclusion from this year's Giro d'Italia suggests that cycling is still dogged by the problem.

Yet this test did not prove that Pantani had taken anything stronger than a cup of cappuccino, since the health check is not a direct way to police its target, the blood-boosting drug EPO.

The state authorities, particularly in France, believe only strong-arm legal tactics can protect younger riders.

Craig McLatchy of the Australian Olympic Committee hoping for drug-free Sydney 2000
But many cyclists resent police and magistrates delving deep into their affairs, despite the results of the French cycling federation's own new compulsory health checks.

Serious health disorder

Some 60% of those tested had "cases of serious biological disorders" while 90% had massive iron levels.

The federation used to justify its clampdown, but their attitude did not impress France's own national champion.

[ image:  ]
Laurent Jalabert walked out of last year's Tour in his tricolour champion's jersey, and then refused to race in France or defend it this season.

He said tests in Switzerland and Spain should have been enough, reflecting a fragmented approach around Europe.

The message from Spain is that it is a French problem, with Jalabert's ONCE squad particularly concerned by the Paris government handing their police new powers.

The Italians were looking into claims made in football and cycling even before last year's Tour.

[ image: Jalabert: French champion is unhappy with his own country]
Jalabert: French champion is unhappy with his own country
"We have reached our limit. We are treated like criminals, but this is not the way to solve the problems," said Pantani about this investigation.

And as the debate continues, so do the raids and allegations.

Virenque's protests helped him escape a ban on former Festina collagues, although the UCI curtailed their suspensions so they could race in this year's Tour.

The move sent out a confusing signal, as did the actions of Belgian police who detained riders from the Mapei team as they crossed a race finish line on 1 April.

No joke

Many observers thought initial reports were a media April's Fool joke, but no one laughed when a package of drugs apparently addressed to the team was seized by Belgian customs.

Theo de Roy of the Rabobank team: Preparing for the French authorities
The riders were cleared and a team employee charged. The whole sport condemned the arrests as heavy-handed.

At the same time dozens of riders were being questioned in France, along with managers and even the Tour officials themselves.

[ image:  ]
A month later another raid in Paris saw more riders detained with horse breeder Bernard Sainz, apparently the "Dr Mabuse" of one rider's memoirs.

It was claimed that 50 riders had been treated by Sainz, although some products supplied were homeopathic remedies.

Virenque himself admitted buying vitamins from Sainz and was fined by his new Polti team.

He, along with ONCE officials and the TVM and Vini Caldirola teams are not allowed on this year's Tour.

The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and allegations such as unproven claims made against Germany's Telekom team are common enough to be treated with no surprise at all.

It is clear that as the last Tour of the century circles France this July, there is a greater distance to travel before the sport cleans up its image.

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