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Prologue and Earlier

Virenque may start the Tour de France

                   This report filed June 29, 1999

                   By VeloNews Interactive News Services                    Agence-France Presse

                   A new twist in the Richard Virenque cycling controversy came to light on Tuesday when the sport's world governing body UCI ordered Tour de France organizers to admit the banned rider in Saturday's prologue.

                   Virenque, France's best hope for a home victory since Bernard Hinault in 1985, was thrown out of the race by race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, determined to clean up the event's image after last year's drugs fiasco.

                   Virenque, the 1997 Tour runner-up and four-time King of the Mountains, was the leader of the disgraced Festina team expelled last year but maintains his innocence even though he has been charged by police investigating that matter. The demand by UCI, who claim Virenque's exclusion is contrary to article 1.2.048 of their rules, came after complaints from Polti and the rider himself.

Tour officials bow to UCI

                   This report filed June 30, 1999

                   By VeloNews Interactive News Services                    AFP

                   Tour de France organizers on Wednesday conceded defeat in their battle to keep French cycling star Richard Virenque out of this year's race which begins Saturday. Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc told a press conference that their hand had been forced, but that they would be taking the appropriate legal action.

                   Leblanc said that they would comply with the sports world governing body Union Cycliste Internationaleís decision to allow 29-year-old Virenque to race and Manolo Saiz, ONCE's Spanish sports director, to work in this year's Tour de France.

                   "This is not a U-turn, because we want to serve the interests of the riders and their teams who have adhered to the new measures in cycling," he said, stating that the decision to comply with the UCI was motivated by respect for the public, host towns, Tour de France personnel and the sponsors.

                   However, Leblanc said that organizers believed that the presence of Virenque and Saiz was incompatible with the Tour's determination to fight against doping in the sport and to restore a transparent image which would reclaim public support.

                   "We have nothing against Richard Virenque as a man. We simply said that his name and image is the incarnation of doping and it was for this reason that we excluded him," said Leblanc.

                   Concerning Saiz, Leblanc said: "We have nothing to ban him from. The UCI wanted him present. We have complied with this. He was excluded for having (last year) insulted the Tour, the organizers and the authorities of our country.  We hope that this will not be reproduced."

                   "I believe that we can have a great Tour de France, clean from the business that polluted it last year," he said. "We will reach a decision at the end of the Tour about the future."

                   Virenque, 1997 Tour runner-up and four-times King of the Mountains has been formally charged by Lille magistrates over the Festina affair which erupted during last year's Tour de France and has also been quizzed by Paris police probing another scandal although he has not yet been charged in that affair. Virenque has denied all the charges.

A Tour of Atonement                    Julich the favorite after Pantani, Ullrich, Riis all DNS

                   One year after some of its  darkest secrets were aired to a shocked worldwide audience, professional cycling will attempt to display its brighter side at the 86th Tour de France, starting July 3. And leading the way in the "good news" department are likely to be the top American hopes, Bobby Julich and Lance Armstrong.

                   Already, the race organizers have dubbed this the Tour of Redemption, in the hope that no more drug-related scandals will sully the Tour's high-profile reputation. Toward that end, the Société du Tour de France has not been idle. At a June 16 press conference, Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc issued red cards to one complete team (tvm-Farm Frites) and five individuals (including Richard Virenque), all of them tainted by doping-related investigations; and another team (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec) had its invitation revoked the next day.

                   As if this self-inflicted expiation weren't enough, fate also stepped in with a few of its own body blows. On June 20, the 1997 Tour champion, Jan Ullrich, announced he would not start, after the right knee he injured in a spectacular fall at May's Tour of Germany forced him to quit the Tour of Switzerland. Ullrich's announcement came two days after 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis crashed and broke his arm in the Swiss tour, and a week after Marco Pantani, humiliated by his blood-test expulsion from the Giro d'Italia, let it be known that, for certain, he would not defend his Tour title.

                   Not since 1956 - when three-time defending champion Louison Bobet pulled out before the start - has the Tour begun without a past winner on the start line. Back in '56, that situation allowed French regional rider Roger Walkowiak to score the biggest upset win of the past 50 years.

                   This year, only two of the 180 starters have ever stood on a Tour podium: Julich (third in 1998) and Swiss Alex Zülle (second in 1995). Of these two, Zülle has yet to recover from the seven-month suspension that resulted from his part in the Festina Affair, and his admission that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs, including epo. Zülle even quit the Tour of Catalonia June 22, leaving for a check-up to identify the cause of his poor form. Julich, however, is ready for the challenge. Although he has been hindered this year by injuries and allergies, the Cofidis team leader showed in June that his form was ascending. He starts the Tour at Le Puy de Fou as the favorite to step up from third to the top place on the Paris podium.

                   Challenging the 27-year-old Coloradan are a dozen other potential winners, headed by two former Giro d'Italia champions, Mapei-Quick Step's Pavel Tonkov of Russia and Polti's Ivan Gotti of Italy, and two former Vuelta a España winners, Deutsche Bank's Abraham Olano of Spain and Banesto's Zülle. The others who could easily grab the yellow jersey are Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service), Dutchman Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Swiss Laurent Dufaux (Saeco-Cannondale), Spaniard Fernando Escartin (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Italians Stefano Garzelli (Mercatone Uno-Bianchi) and Giuseppe Guerini (Telekom), and Kazakh Alex Vinokourov (Casino).

                   With such an open race, Julich's Cofidis team will have a hard time controlling all the attacks in the opening week. To prevent such a fatiguing  prospect, Cofidis will have to play off the other teams - letting the team with the yellow jersey set the tempo, and allowing the sprinters' teams  to pull back any breaks in the closing kilometers  of each stage. If that happens, Julich will be able to lie low until the tough 56.5km time trial at Metz at the end of the first week. After that comes the first mountain stage, which will establish a hierarchy. Then, Julich can match his efforts against the other leading contenders.

                   One danger of that strategy - adopted in the past by Ullrich's Telekom team and Miguel Induráin's Banesto squad - is that it puts enormous pressure on the support riders; and in Cofidis's case, that could be too much to handle.  Another risk is that teams with more than one contender can put riders in multiple attacks, adding to the single-contender team's work load.  This latter tactic is one that can be adopted by the U.S. Postal Service, which, besides Armstrong, has three other American challengers, who all can climb strongly and record good time trials: Kevin Livingston, Tyler Hamilton and Jonathan Vaughters. Another such team is Saeco-Cannondale, which has fourth-place Giro finisher Paolo Savoldelli as back-up to Dufaux.

                   What all this means is that the '99 Tour could be not only the most open race in years, but also one of the most exciting. It brings to mind the 1987 Tour, which started without defending champion Greg LeMond (recovering from gunshot wounds) and developed into a nail-biting contest between Frenchman Jean-François Bernard, Spaniard Pedro Delgado and, the ultimate winner, Irishman Stephen Roche.

                   If this year's Tour is only half as gripping, then, as the organizers hope, the race will take center stage; Pantani, Ullrich and Riis will not be missed; and those drug investigations will remain where they belong - in police stations and courtrooms, not on the tv screens and tabloid pages of the world's media. Admittedly, it is taking time for pro cycling to rebuild itself, but a well-fought, drug-free Tour would go a long way to making it happen more quickly.

Reading the Race                     FIELD SPRINTS

                    For the Dutch Rabobank team, there are two concerns in a Tour de France field sprint: Get Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen in position to battle the likes of Mario Cipollini and Erik Zabel; and protect its general classification man, Michael Boogerd. "Most of the time, we save Leon Van Bon, if it's possible, for the last 1km, so we can really pull the sprint for Robbie," said Rabobank's Maarten Den Bakker. "Then we have two, three guys who keep him out of the wind and bring him up there [before the last kilometer], so it's about four riders who help Robbie - and we always have one or two guys with Michael Boogerd, so that he doesn't lose any time."

                   According to Den Bakker, the strategy for a field sprint depends on several factors: "When you have a really big road, then you can come in the last 3km, 4km from 50th position to the front," explained the Dutch rider. "But when it's small, and you have corners, you have to be already to the front maybe 10km before the finish." While Rabobank will count on McEwen in the sprints, the team won't be spending all day at the front like, say, Saeco-Cannondale. "We don't really have a team to control the peloton the whole day to let it be a bunch sprint," said Den Bakker.  "With Saeco for Cipollini, you know they're gonna close let it be a bunch sprint; and then, in the last 10km, they put their team there, some riders to pull to 2km, and then [Gianmatteo] Fagnini is going to do the last kilometer."

                   Knowing the tendencies of other teams, however, can help a team like Rabobank. As Den Bakker puts it: "Sometimes you can say, okay, we trust on those guys, and we sit on their wheel...and we don't have to work."

                   VeloNews Power Rankings                    Sprinters

                    TOM STEELS: The Belgian's Tour debut in 1997 was less than spectacular: He was thrown out of the race after throwing a water bottle during a heated sprint in the first week of the race. But last year, the Mapei sprinter more than made up for it, scoring four stage wins while wearing the colors of Belgian national champion.  With the world's No. 1-ranked team at his disposal in the sprints, Steels is a force to be reckoned with.

                    MARIO CIPOLLINI: Nobody else can match the Italian's combination of wicked finishing speed and a really keen fashion sense. If he can grab an early yellow jersey with a first-week stage win-as he did in 1993 and '97 -look for  SuperMario to bust out the yellow shorts, yellow helmet and yellow bike to complete his ensemble.  Cipollini has racked up eight Tour stage wins, but hasn't finished the Tour in six tries.

                    ERIK ZABEL: You can call him Mr. Consistency. Zabel may not win 'em all, but he's always up there, except on the most mountainous stages. Although the German Telekom rider has recorded his fair share of Ws, even more impressive is that he has won the green jersey-awarded for mid-stage and finishing points-three years in a row.

                    NICOLA MINALI: For sheer speed, Minali is one of the fastest men in the peloton; he came close last year with two second-place finishes, but couldn't break through for his third career stage win. (Depending on his Cantina Tollo team's wild-card status, it's possible that Minali won't get a start in the Tour this time. In that case, Lampre's Jan Svorada will be the sprinter to look for.)

Protect your Leader                     MOUNTAIN STRATEGY  

                     Mountain strategy: Team Deutsche Telekom's Udo Bölts was a key team player in Jan Ullrich's Tour de France win in 1997, and he also helped Ullrich secure his two second-place finishes, in '96 and '98. This year, Bölts, 32, is one of the team members expected to stay close to Ullrich, and deliver him through the mountains.

                   According to the 11-year German pro, the strategy in the mountains is simple. The game plan hinges on Ullrich's general classification position.

                   "If you're defending [the yellow jersey], you try to stay with your leader in the front and try to make the race comfortable for him," explained Bölts.  "You ride a rhythm that's good for him - which probably isn't so good for you - so that there are no attacks by other teams; and you stay with him as long as possible."

                   On the other hand, if Ullrich enters the mountains trailing the leader, then the strategy changes. In  that case, "you have to make the race hard," said Bölts. "You have to attack the other team's leader. You have to kill off his teammates, and set such a hard pace that on the last mountain he has no team members with him, so that your team leader can make an attack."

                   If all goes well for Ullrich, he will have three or four teammates protecting him in the mountains:  Italian Giuseppe Guerini, German Jörg Jaksche, Austrian Georg Totschnig and Bölts. "They hope that I can stay as long as possible with him," said Bölts. It's a role he's used to, and knows how to play it very well.

                   VeloNews Power Rankings                    Climbers

                    BOBBY JULCH: Raised in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Cofidis's American leader is no stranger to the mountains. And Julich was right at home in the Alps and Pyrénées last year on his way to finishing third overall. Look for him to be more aggressive in the mountains this year as he guns for the yellow jersey.

                    CHRISTOPHE RINERO: Pop quiz: Who won the climber's jersey in last year's Tour? Who finished fourth overall, behind Pantani, Ullrich and Julich? That's right, it was the young Cofidis rider, who turned just turned 25 last December.  The Frenchman will be a valuable teammate to Julich this year, and a threat to repeat as top climber.

                     In the event that neither Pantani nor Virenque rides the Tour, watch out for two other leading uphill warriors: Pavel Tonkov of Mapei and  Fernando Escartin of Kelme-Costa Blanca.

Teamwork is Key                     GENERAL CLASSIFICATION  

                      The tactics used to put your team leader in position every day to bid for (or defend) the yellow jersey is the ultimate challenge at the Tour de France. And there are as many different strategies to do that as there are contenders.

                      Take the case of Greg LeMond in 1989. It has been said that LeMond won that Tour without a team, and yet his ADR team had a phalanx of strong Belgian workers - headed by Johan Museeuw and Eddy Planckaert - who protected their American leader on the flat stages before the mountains. And even then, on the key mountain stage when LeMond had his only  puncture of the race, Planckaert was there to hand LeMond a wheel.

                   Today, a rider like Marco Pantani needs strong riders to nurse him through the opening week, and also have one or two men who can stay with him on the early parts of mountain stages-more  for the Italian's morale rather than physical reasons - before The Pirate unleashes his climbing legs. It's the opposite for Abraham Olano, who's a labored climber, and who needs powerful riders with him throughout the mountain stages so they can pace him up the passes to limit his losses - and then help him chase back on the descents.

                   So when you hear a team leader say the words "I couldn't have done it without my teammates," believe him. It's not an empty statement made to please his sponsors. And when a worker on the Tour winner's team, after slaving for three weeks to keep his man in contention, says in Paris, "This is as big a high as winning the Tour myself," he, too, really means it.  It comes in many different forms, but teamwork is key to a successful Tour.

                   VeloNews Power Rankings                    General Classification

                    BOBBY JULICH: He has finished on the third step of the podium, so Julich will be looking to improve that performance this year. If he can remain as consistent as last year, and continue to get closer to Ullrich in the time trials, the American could even take the yellow jersey.  Whether he keeps it until Paris is another matter.

                    LANCE ARMSTRONG: America's hero has finished only one Tour - he came in 36th in 1995.  But that was before he was struck down with cancer. The "new" Armstrong is some 15 pounds lighter, and his fourth place at last September's Vuelta a España saw him climbing with the best.  He was also among the top three time trialists. If he can replicate that form, the naturally aggressive Texan has the potential to finish top five at the Tour.

                    ABRAHAM OLANO: Last year, the elegant Olano had to quit the Tour after crashing on the first mountain stage. He went on to win the Vuelta, despite being rescued time and again in the mountains by his faithful teammates. He's a brilliant time trialist, but his weakness in the climbs will again stop him from making the podium in Paris.

Hot Tips                    Some riders who could surprise

                    Every year at the Tour de France, there are riders who upset all of those prerace forecasts. Three years ago, a young Jan Ullrich was a late inclusion on the Telekom team.  Ullrich stunned even his team managers by coming in second overall. Last year, it was a little-known Frenchman, Christophe Rinero, who caused a stir by finishing fourth overall and taking the climbers' polka-dot jersey. Who could upset the apple cart in 1999? Well, here's a quick look at 10 men who have the potential to make a breakthrough.

                   Mario Aerts (B), 24                    Lotto-Mobistar                    Riding his first Tour de France this year, Aerts is one of the new breed of Belgians who are starting to shine at the top level. In his first grand tour last year, the Vuelta, he came in 41st; and this year, he made the headlines by finishing third at the hilly Belgian classic, the Flèche Wallonne, on a day of icy rain and snow. Watch for Aerts in the mountain stages.

                   Dariusz Baranowski (Pl), 27                    Banesto                    With no fanfare, as a member of the U.S. Postal Service team in 1998, Baranowski made his mark at the Tour by placing 10th on the critical alpine stage to Les Deux-Alpes, fourth in the final time trial and 12th overall. Now on Banesto, with whom the lean Polish rider is expected to ride for Alex Zülle, Baranowski should continue his progress into the top 10.

                   Santiago Botero (Col), 26                    Kelme-Costa Blanca                    Assuming he rides the Tour, this talented Colombian climber could cause a real surprise.  Botero showed signs of his talent last year by placing fourth in the mountainous Tour de Romandie, followed by 54th at the Giro d'Italia; and he began this year with a stage win at the Ruta del Sol, and outstanding performances in the following Spanish stage races.

                   Giuseppe Guerini (I), 29                    Telekom                    He's not a young talent, but this former Polti rider will have a greater prominence at this Tour after transferring to Telekom. Guerini last year came in third at the Giro, and won the toughest stage in the Dolomites after a long breakaway with Marco Pantani. Expect the Italian to shine in the Alps-he could even take over his team's leadership should Ullrich falter.

                   Kevin Livingston (USA), 26                    U.S. Postal Service                    Eighteen months younger than Bobby Julich, this Texas-based Southerner is not far behind in his progression at the world's biggest race. They were teammates at Cofidis last year, with Livingston finishing 17th at the Tour, while helping Julich come in third. This year, with the USPS, Livingston will again play a support role, but his great talent should shine through even more than in 1998.

                   Miguel Angel Peña (Sp), 28                    Banesto                    One of the two dozen Spaniards who pulled out of the 1998 Tour in protest of the French police dragnet, Peña will be ready to race this year. He is a talented climber-second in last year's  Dauphiné Libéré - and could be the Banesto team leader should Zülle not find his best form after his long "Festina affair" suspension.

                   Marco Serpellini (I), 26                    Lampre-Daikin                    This rising Italian rider last year won the two-week Tour of Portugal and then came in ninth at the Vuelta. With his team leader, Oskar Camenzind, focusing on the Giro, Serpellini may get the chance to play a strong role at the Tour.

                   Kurt Van de Wouwer (B), 27                    Lotto-Mobistar                    Placing 16th at the 1998 Tour de France, after coming in 11th at both the Dauphiné and Route du Sud, Van de Wouwer established himself as one of the top Belgian hopes. If his climbing strength continues to improve, expect him to vie for the top 10 at this year's Tour.

                   Alex Vinokourov (Kaz), 25                    Casino                    As a rookie last year, the talented Vinokourov won three French stage races; he continued his consistency early in 1999 before a broken collarbone delayed his season. That could be an advantage when July comes around, as the Kazakh should have plenty of reserves to tackle his first Tour. He is a strong time trialist, but has yet to be tested in the high mountains.

In Recovery Mode                    The Tour has to pick itself up from the doping troubles of 1998

                   by John Wilcockson

                   The most desperate day of the 1998 Tour de France was also its most beautiful. Blue skies, a light breeze and warm sunshine greeted the 133 riders as they cruised out from Albertville on the 17th stage. Ahead lay a 149km route to Aix-les-Bains, passing through a stunning alpine landscape of limestone crags, dark-green pine forests and turquoise lakes. This was the stage Bobby Julich, lying second overall, had picked out to make a major assault.

                   But instead of witnessing a battle between Julich and race leader Marco Pantani, the stage turned into a fight for survival for the Tour itself. Soon after leaving Albertville, word spread through the peloton that the night before six members of the Dutch team, TVM-Farm Frites, had been taken by French police from their hotel rooms and been subjected to a series of blood, urine and hair-follicle tests at the local police station. Some of those riders - being investigated in connection with the ongoing drugs-abuse case that started almost three weeks earlier with the Festina team - missed their nightly massage session, their evening meal, and a big chunk of their sleep.  This was something that their colleagues would not tolerate.

                   So, after riding in a group for an hour at a gentle pace, the riders stopped. They then heard that more police raids, against several other teams, were planned for that evening. For many, this was the last straw in what had become, to them, a witch hunt against professional cycling. The then world No. 1-ranked racer, Laurent Jalabert, decided he had had enough; he climbed into his team car and quit the Tour.  He took with him the remaining seven riders on his Spanish team, ONCE.  After some negotiations between race officials and rider spokesman Bjarne Riis, the stage continued. But riders then ripped off their race numbers in protest, effectively ending the stage, even though they carried on riding and eventually arrived in Aix at 7:30 p.m.-two hours later than scheduled.

                   Other teams followed ONCE, and by the end of the night, while a packed press room followed developments though TV news reports, e-mails, Web sites and cell phones, five more teams had quit. Only 103 riders were left; and there was talk that no one would start the next stage. Even the optimistic Riis told French television, "If the police come to my hotel tonight, then I go home." He added, "What we did today we did to save our livelihoods, to save cycling..."

                   And this year?

Center of Attention                    For four days last year, Hincapie chased the yellow jersey

                   In last year's Tour de France, the U.S. Postal Service's George Hincapie was oh so close to claiming the overall race lead and the coveted yellow jersey.  Two seconds. That was the margin that separated him from race leader Bo Hamburger after stage three, on July 14. When  the 25-year-old New York native escaped in a nine-rider break, 40km into that day's stage, he began a four-day quest for yellow. With the help of his eight Postal Service teammates, Hincapie chased after every mid-race time bonus and finishing bonus, in his attempt to close the gap-first to Hamburger, and then to Australian Stuart O'Grady, who took over the lead on stage four.

                   "It was a good experience to be in second place in the Tour," recalled Hincapie," having your team work for all the bonuses. I felt like we tried our best...we just missed getting 'em where O'Grady would get 'em."

                   While Hincapie had full support from the Postal squad, O'Grady's GAN team was just as tough.  "The whole [Postal] team was involved,"  Hincapie said. "Frankie [Andreu] and Eki [Viatcheslav Ekimov] were the main players at the end. But you know, when you have guys like GAN's Frédéric Moncassin and Magnus Bäckstedt, it's hard to beat them."

                   The angular Postal leader never did recoup the time to O'Grady, but for four days, the battle featuring O'Grady, Hamburger and Hincapie was the focus of the Tour's media coverage.   "Anytime somebody different starts doing well, they want to know about you," explained Hincapie.

                   And when the "somebody different" was from the States, it upped the level of awareness back in Hincapie country. "People from home started asking me questions, because all of a sudden they know something about cycling. It's nice," he said, with a smile and a gleam in his eye. "It's more interesting for somebody to see somebody they know in the Tour-`Oh, he's from Charlotte.'  People get excited. So anything that'll make the sport bigger, it's good for everybody."

                   Hincapie took all the attention in stride. Having been crowned USPRO champion just before last year's Tour, he entered the Grande Boucle with a shining, new confidence. "To me it was a lot more special, because I've always wanted to wear that [USPRO] jersey in the Tour de France," he said. "The Tour de France is the biggest event in cycling for sure, and one of the biggest events in the world, and to be able to wear the national championship jersey meant a lot to me."

                   Hincapie didn't quite manage to trade his stars-and-stripes for a yellow jersey, but he allows himself just a moment to think, "What if?"

                   "The first day, yeah, it was more difficult to sleep," he remembered. "The last bonus sprint, I didn't even sprint for it, because I was trying to save my legs for the finish. Nobody actually sprinted for it. Hamburger just won it; he was pulling....

                   "I think if I could have just pedaled two strokes harder, I could have gotten second or third, that would have been my two seconds.  But there are so many instances in cycling where you're this close to this or that; if you think about it too much, you'll go crazy." -Bryan Jew

The Principal Absentees                    A look back at how the peloton thinned

                   Ullrich out of Tour de France                    June 21 -- Germany's Jan Ullrich, winner of the Tour de France in 1997, announced Sunday on the German TV channel ARD that he will not compete at next monthís Tour de France.

                   Vini Caldirola out of Tour                    June 18 -- The Société du Tour de France on Friday announced that the Vini Caldirola team had been excluded from this yearís Tour de France after its leader, Ukrainian Sergei Gontchar, tested above the UCIís hematocrit limit at the Tour of Switzerland on Thursday.

                   Riis crashes out at Tour of Switzerland                    June 18 -- Telekomís 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis suffered fractures in his right hand and lower arm during stage three of the Tour of Switzerland on Friday, and will almost certainly miss the upcoming Tour de France.

                   1999 Tour de France: A commentary                    June 16 -- The news coming out of Lausanne on Wednesday will probably have more of an impact on the upcoming Tour de France than the news coming out of Paris. From Lausanne came the news that 78km into stage 2 of the Tour of Switzerland -- alongside the calm waters of Lake Neuchatel -- Jan Ullrich quit the race with sharp pains in his right leg, the legacy of his frightening crash in the Tour of Germany May 30. From Paris, came the list of names that the Tour organizers is excluding from their race this year -- including Richard Virenque and the entire TVM-Farm Frites team.

                   Ullrich in doubt for Tour after injuring knee                    June 16 -- Germany's 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich, who rides for the Telekom team, withdrew from the Tour of Switzerland team today after feeling intense pain in his right knee, leaving his participation in this year's Tour de France extremely doubtful. It means yet another high-profile rider could be absent when this year's event gets underway on July 3. Earlier today Tour organizers announced who would - and would not - be invited to this year's race.

                   Mercatone Uno boss: Pantani wonít race Tour                    June 11 -- Mercatone Uno team manager Giuseppe Martinelli claimed Friday that Marco Pantani probably wonít defend his Tour de France crown. Martinelli claimed that the  29-year-old, who was expelled from the Giro díItalia last Saturday after a blood test revealed a high hematocrit level, is more likely to stick to his original plan to compete in September's Tour of Spain and then the world championships in Treviso, Italy.

What would the day be like?

                   This report filed July 1, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu                    U.S. Postal Service rider

                   I was wondering what today would be like. For eight years I have done the token medical tests that the Tour gives its riders each year.

                   It consisted of a two-minute EKG, weight, height, fat test, blood pressure, pulse, and lung capacity test. That was it, the whole procedure had the riders in and out in under ten minutes.  This year because of all the past doping problems and the French crackdown on doping I was expecting something different. I was wrong, it was the same test as usual -- only quicker.  George did get into a bit of trouble at the medical testing with our director. Johan jumped out of his seat saying, " George what the hell have you been doing?" He saw George had no tan lines when he took off his shirt for the EKG testing. You're supposed to be training before the Tour, not hanging out at the beach.

                   There are always a few hiccups while traveling to the start of Tour. The Gerona boys -- George, Christian, Tyler, and Johnathon -- had a delayed flight leaving Barcelona and they missed their connection in Nice. They were supposed to arrive in Nantes at the team hotel around 5 p.m.  Instead, they didn't show up till 11:30 p.m. Another hiccup happened when Mark Gorski and his crew arrived at Paris-Orly from America. I will know more details tomorrow, but they were delayed about three or four hours in customs.  They were bringing some T-shirts for the team but a problem arose with customs because they had the Tour logo on them. I think it was some kind of trademark infringement thing.

                   The morning training consisted of the usual tinkering and adjusting of our new team bikes.  Some guys changed handlebars while other changed the cleats on their shoes. Its funny how some guys hop on the bike and go while others sit outside for hours measuring every piece on the bike that can be measured. Some guys even changed their shoes. Everyone has a different idea about what can be tinkered with before a big race and what is completely off limits.

                   The team Fiat cars were waiting for us at the airport. Because the Tour is sponsored by Fiat we are not allowed to use our team Volkswagens. The staff flew in a couple days early and went to Paris to pick up the cars. The cars come already equipped with radios and televisions in them. The TV's are placed in the rear of the car to help cut down on unnecessary accidents. In the past, directors would be so busy watching the TV that they would slam into the cars in front of them. Of course every director thinks this only happens to other guys. That's why we have already jimmy-rigged our car to have a TV in the back of the car and in the front. Instead of having to fly to Paris pick the cars up a team can also arrange for their team Fiat's to be delivered to their team hotel at a certain date. If you did this you wouldn't have time to fine-tune your cars.

                   When we got on the plane Kevin was bragging to Lance and I how he had packed everything under the sun to bring to the race. He said he could live out of his suitcase for a year if he wanted to. When we landed we discovered Kevin might have packed everything under the sun but he forgot to pack his team tennis shoes.  Lance got these shoes for everyone for one reason -- the team presentation. Luckily, the team had a spare pair of shoes in the truck. Even better luck was that they were exactly Kevin's size.

Pre-Tour Headaches

                   This report filed July 2, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu                    U.S. Postal Service rider

                   July 2--Last night we were debating how to solve our problem. We were trying to get around driving for four hours going back and forth to the course. Our hotel is situated seventy kilometers from the prologue course and where the team presentation takes place. We want to see the course in the morning, two hour drive, and then we have to go to the nine p.m. team presentation, another two hour drive. Sitting in the car for four or five hours doesn't exactly keep the legs fresh the day before the start of the Tour.

                   By morning we decided to drive to the course and ride home. Lance and George decided to stay and ride the circuits then drive home. My ride for the day was 100km and when I got back to the hotel everyone asked if I heard about Lance. Juan, our mechanic, picked up a wheel  that was all twisted and told me Lance was hit by a car on the prologue circuit. George said he was following Lance as they passed a bunch of cars that were stopped at the bottom of a hill.  The exact moment when Lance looked down to see what gear he was in a car started to pull out. Lance swerved to avoid it but the mirror caught him on the hip and sent him over. The driver was the second director of Telekom. He lost it, no not Lance, the driver. He couldn't believe he hit a rider and was apologizing and saying, "God, I hope nothing's broken." Lance was fine, he had a few words with the director then hopped back on his bike and rode for another hour before making the drive back to the hotel. At lunch Lance seemed fine so I suppose no harm done.

                   We received our yellow Tour books today. We call it the "race bible." This book is what you look at every night and every morning to get an idea of what the day will be like. It also can provide sleepless nights. The "bible" lists and shows everything including the start area, degree of difficulty of the mountains, how long the transfers are for the staff, the finish area, and where the medical and press areas are.  Pretty much anything you can think of you will find in the "bible." We get a mini version of the "bible" to carry in our pockets to look at during each stage. This information is put on laminated cards that we carry with us and it provides us with the course profiles and location of feed zones each day. Right now I have twenty-one cards sitting in my bag, I already look forward to when they are gone.

                   Along with the bible we also receive a small book with all the rules and regulations in it. It describes the procedure for the feed zones, the time bonuses each stage, prize money, how to protest and other technical stuff. I only keep this book for one reason. It contains the percentages for the time cuts in the mountain stages. That's the most important rule, you have to finish in order to keep going.

                   Also included in this Tour package is a book on the history of the Tour. It contains names of all the mountains held in the Tour, finish cities, winners, losers, and anyone who has ever ridden the Tour. It can have lots of useful or useless information depending on who you are.

                   We also receive a book that lists each team and where their hotels are for the entire three weeks.  This includes little maps to help find the mom and pop places with telephone and fax numbers.  It is not very difficult to track and locate a rider during the Tour. In fact, you can send a letter to any rider you want during the Tour. You just address an envelope with "DYNAPOST- LE TOUR", under it you put which team and which rider or staff person it should go to. Intermittently through out the Tour they deliver the mail to the teams. It was crazy the amount of mail a French rider like Jean Cyril Robin who was on our team last year would receive. The mail guy would show up and pass out one for George, one for Tyler and thirty to Jean Cyril.  J.C. would then have to sign his postcards and write each person back. Ninety percent of the time that's what they want, an autographed card.

                   Tonight is our team presentation. We are scheduled for a nine p.m. showing but knowing how these things work it will probably be an hour late. Since we have an hour drive home after the presentation we won't get back to the hotel till probably after eleven. Before the presentation we have a meeting. Surprise! Today the Tour announced a mandatory meeting between all teams, riders, staff, and doctors. Pretty much anybody working in the Tour has to attend this meeting. Because I will get back to the hotel past my bedtime, I'm not a night owl; I will try to tell you about the meeting and team presentation tomorrow. Also tomorrow I'll talk about the prologue, the first day of the 1999 Tour.  

From The Peloton: We can only dream, and one has come true

                   This report filed July 3, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu                    U.S. Postal Service rider

                   I'll start off with telling you a little about last night. Last night we had to attend a mandatory Tour de France meeting and after do the Tour team presentation. The meeting was a closed meeting with no press allowed inside. Big deal, the microphone was so loud and with the windows open in the back you could have been a block away and heard what was going on

                   The first to speak was Jean Claude Kelly, he gave a little pep talk about how it's everybody's dream to do the Tour and how all the little kids look up to us. It was pretty tame.

                   Next was Jean Marie Leblanc, he told us how the Tour was in jeopardy and how our jobs were also in jeopardy if the same mess as last year happened. His talk was a little more stern.

                   Next was Heinz Verbruggen, who was no where last year when the shit hit the fan. His talk was to the point saying that the UCI has rules and you have to follow them. The police have rules and you have to follow them. His stance was no tolerance for anything. His talk was direct and forceful.

                   The meeting started at seven p.m. When we entered the building we were given headphones to wear so wear could hear the translation in English. There were three channels, Spanish, Italian, and English. Looking around it felt like I was at a United Nations meeting seeing everyone wearing the headphones. Ironically, guess which two teams were late to arrive to the meeting. Festina arrived ten minutes late and Polti, with Virenque, arrived over thirty five minutes late. Nothing like making a good first impression.

                   The team presentation was outside in a theme park of medieval times. Each team was introduced with their directors for a few minutes in front of the crowd sitting in the stands. All in all it was pretty quick. ONCE was the team in front of us. When they announced Manola Saiz, the director of ONCE, the crowd started to boo and whistle. I think they were upset that he was allowed to come and participate in the Tour.

                   That afternoon driving to the team presentation we had a small accident. We lost one of the team bikes off the car rack. Kevin saw the whole thing. The bike just lifted up and landed in the middle of the freeway on its handlebars and saddle. When it happened Kevin told the others in the car, "Man, whoever's bike that is he's going to be pissed." When they got out of the car they found out that the bike was Kevin's.

                   Saw a small highlight on Eurosport news the other day. They showed Virenque going to the medical control. On his way out a spectator tried to kick him, he may have got contact. Anyway, Virenque freaked and started chasing the guy  trying to hit him. This is while all the film crews and photographers were there. They were all tripping all over each other in all the chaos.

                   The first part of this article wouldn't start the way it did if I knew what I know now. Lance is in the Yellow Jersey after winning the prologue today.

                   This will be my second time defending the Yellow Jersey in the Tour. My first was when Sean Yates took the yellow in 1994. Kevin defended the Yellow Jersey last year when Laraunt Desbiens had it for three or four days. The prologue course was tailor made for Lance, an eight kilometer time trial with a steep 700 meter climb. It was a course for the powerful and strong. I felt good at the start and decided to attempt the hill in the big ring so Lance would get a feel if maybe the small ring was better. This was an ongoing debate for two days, big ring or small ring. I discovered the big ring was the right way to lose the race. I completely blew at the top of the hill and never recovered until after the finish line. It was an experiment that was pure hell for me but maybe helped Lance in the long run.

                   With the form Lance had shown in the previous races we all knew this would be possible. You could tell Lance knew he could do it also because he was nervous. Normally he is not like that.

                   Tomorrow there are three time bonuses and along with the finish bonus there is a total of fifty seconds the sprinters can take back on the leaders. I don't think anyone will take that much time tomorrow, but by the next day the jersey could change hands. If we were really on the ball then maybe George could get the time bonuses from the other sprinters and take the Yellow Jersey from Lance. We can only dream, then again one of our dreams has already come true.

Saturday 3 July 1999 Tour de France: Virenque has bright chance back in the peloton                          By Phil Liggett in Le Puy du Fou

                         RICHARD VIRENQUE, the Frenchman who won the right to ride the Tour de France when he appealed to the International Cycling Union against the race organization's decision to ban him, disappeared beneath a scrum of media on his arrival here yesterday.

                         It was the kind of reception normally reserved for the final winner in Paris and if this was by way of a dress rehearsal for July 25, the Tour de France had a right to feel abused.

                         Virenque smiled, ignored the race's most senior officials and disappeared into the dungeons of this chateau where he passed the routine health check, which has always been part of the three-week race around France.

                         His Italian Polti team car waited in the courtyard where Romans once stood, and with smiles which showed no sign of the embarrassment he has caused the race, he was gone.

                         The chances of him winning in the absence of last year's victor, Marco Pantani, and other recent winners, Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis, are good enough to make him a joint favourite with Spaniard Abraham Olano. He would have no inhibitions on the Champs-Elysèes if he were to take the winner's cheque of £230,000 ($360,000)

                         Virenque, who claims to never have knowingly taken drugs, will face a French court, probably next January, to answer charges which include the supply of illegal drugs. The investigation into his former team, Festina, is now complete and the papers are being processed in Lille.

                         This afternoon, however, what might be will cause Virenque little concern as he begins what he will see as the most important race of his life. He is still the most popular French rider, as his name chalked on the roads and hung from trees on placards testified yesterday.

                         The 2,400-mile race, which starts with a 4.25-mile time trial on a tortuous route on roads around the chateau, will give no real indication as to the likely winner until its ninth day. With luck, the first leader will, for a fourth time, be Britain's Chris Boardman.

                         The 35-mile time trial at Metz will then be the next target for those who want to enter the Alps in the front row of a race which has become the most open for years. The withdrawal of so many leading contenders has given new names the chance to steal the show.

                         American Bobby Julich, a member of the French Cofidis team who finished third last year, sees himself as the heir apparent with the loss of Pantani and last year's runner-up, Ullrich, who is injured.

                         Lance Armstrong, another American, returns after a gap of three years during which time he has successfully battled against testicular cancer.

                         Pantani, a specialist mountain climber, always said he would not defend his title over a course not to his liking, and as it turned out, his decision saved further red faces in the organization. He would certainly have been barred following his disqualification from the Tour of Italy because of a failed blood check.

                         Last night the field of 180 riders received a fatherly talk from Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director. They were left in little doubt that this 'Tour of Redemption' must reach Paris without any doping revelations. If it does not, the race's main sponsors have indicated that this Tour will certainly be their last.

Tour de France: Redemption on the road                          By Paul Hayward

                         NOT FAR from where the 86th Tour de France will start this afternoon, there is a religious order called the Monks of the Apocalypse. The brothers may well be lining the route. In Europe's biggest historical and ecological theme park, today's prologue will be accompanied by falconry displays, a 'Festival of the Knights' and a re-enactment of 13th-century French legends.  After the pharmaceutical Bacchanalia of last year, this Tour is all about mythology and escapism.

                         The 'Tour of Redemption', as it was officially described, is reeling again. An attempt to lay a new, purified race before the French public was savagely undermined this week by the decision of the sport's world governing body, the Union Cycliste International, to reinstate the leading French rider, Richard Virenque, who had been told by the Tour organizers that he was "not welcome" at this year's race. Virenque, said Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director, "epitomizes the doping phenomenon, whether or not he is responsible for it". There are many at the race start who fear Virenque may even win.

                         New developments are racing by faster than the peloton on an Alpine descent. Laurent Jalabert, who said he would boycott the race, suddenly appeared on the start list - but then came off it - and, in Lille, an investigating magistrate, Patrick Keil, has delivered a potentially explosive 5,500-page  report to the protagonists in last year's drama.

                         It may be the supreme irony of the Tour that it resembles the nation's blood-flow pumping around the great heart of Paris. It is a celebration of France itself; of its snow-dusted mountains and lustrous meadows. But last summer, on 'the tortured tour', French police discovered that those veins were coursing with chemicals, hormones and steroids. Large swathes of the Tour had blood like strawberry jam, thickened by a substance known as EPO, which raises the red-cell count and enables oxygen to be carried quicker from a rider's bursting lungs.

                         The paradox of riders using drugs, but passing tests to find them, is resolved by the fact that EPO is invisible to analysis, and offenders are said to have ways of lowering the hematocrit level for blood samples.

                         In the worst scenario, the Tour de France is sport as mirage, sport as institutionalized deceit. This year, there have been widespread ejections and rhetoric about purging the Tour of its shame. Every rider will be tested at today's prologue and there will be random swoops before the end in Paris on July 25. After the chaos of 12 months ago, Leblanc now says: "It is, of course, the sporting morality, ethics, and complete and utter transparency, that are now at the heart of the sport."

                         As the Tour sets off along roads daubed with slogans ("Virenque No 1" and even "EPO"), there is consternation among the organizers about the UCI's inflammatory actions. Virenque's eviction followed the discovery of shocking drug abuse in the Festina team, which Virenque has now left to join Polti of Italy. Before the riders set off across the 4.25 miles of the prologue, Leblanc will address the peloton: "We will say it again to the riders, directors, doctors and all assistants in the general briefing at Le Puy du Fou, that they must accept their responsibilities." At the race launch, Leblanc had boasted: "Do we need to remind you that in the middle of the [1998] Tour, we did not hesitate to exclude the best team in the world, as well as the most popular champion, who were responsible for the outbreak of what was first known as 'the Festina affair'?" Leblanc was referring to Virenque.

                         But the ghost is back, just as he was only two months after the Tour, when Festina returned from exile to win the Grand Prix of Western France, in front of 200,000 fanatical spectators. Attention now switches to the UCI, whose decision to reinstate him was condemned as an "insult" by France's sports minister. A long memory is not required to recall that the UCI's president, Hein Verbruggen, refused to be called away from a conference in Havana when last year's crisis first broke, then went on holiday to India for 10 days as the Tour was descending into anarchy with strikes and police raids. It was the UCI, too, who, in October of last year, reduced by four weeks the eight-month ban imposed on three Festina riders, thus enabling them to join this year's Tour.

                         The extent and scale of the drug problem suggested the Tour has been riding a giant syringe on wheels. To believe that the organizers knew nothing about it, and were as surprised as the rest of us when the black bin-liners were carted away by police, is harder than riding up the Alps on a butcher's bike.  The official hope is that the 1999 Tour will be the race of catharsis, of "reconstruction" and "redemption", as it was described by Leblanc, who must have been looking at the roadside crucifixes which pepper the hedge-rowed countryside of the Vendèe. He talked of the "cataclysm" and "trauma" of last summer, yet so far the mission to restore the "dignity" of sport's greatest endurance test has not led to a conclusive victory, nor even provided proof that Leblanc and his colleagues will pursue the logic of what they are doing to its embarrassing end. June was a month of further drug busts and lurid allegations.

                         The Tour is acknowledged as not only sport's most grueling race with or without a horse or a bike. It is a nature film and an art-house movie. The French claim that it is the world's third largest sporting event after the World Cup and Olympics. It has a budget of £25 million ($38 million) and an entourage of 3,700, which includes 190 riders and nearly 2,000 media personnel. If the villages around Le Puy du Fou are any guide, the French public want to forget last year's race ever happened and return to their dream. The flower baskets are being hung and watered by excited maids in the farming country of the Vendèe.

                         This is not about the odd pill to get the engine going for an Alpine ascent. French police uncovered a system in which massive assaults are made on the normal functioning of the human body. This blood doping and hormone and steroid abuse has enabled riders to pump away far beyond the bounds of what would be humanly possible. And with that attempt to transcend human physiology comes a violation of the internal organs that make life possible in the first place. Abuse of EPO happens to be a bringer of death as well as stage wins.

                         In his book, Serial Murder, Willy Voet, the Festina masseur, stopped at the Franco-Belgian border last year with the kind of drugs stash that Hunter S Thompson would have been frightened by, listed eight cyclists whose premature deaths he believes to have been drug-related. Jacques Anquetil, five times a champion of the race, once said: "You don't do the Tour de France on mineral water." A lethal cynicism seems to have settled on some parts of the Tour. Many of the bigger corporations and sponsors such as the Credit Lyonnaise bank have allowed the event a year's grace. But in August last year, with their team in worldwide disgrace, Festina issued a press release claiming that their watch sales had never been so good.

                         The tide of strife has not ceased. These are some of the key moments of the past month:

                         June 16: The Tour's organizers unveil the 20 teams for this year's race. Banned, on "moral grounds", are Virenque, Manolo Saiz, director of the Spanish ONCE team and his team doctor, and the entire Dutch TVM squad. The Deutsche Telekom team are included in the start list, despite the publication in Der Spiegel of evidence of systematic drug and hormone abuse.

                         June 17: Rick Keyaerts, a Festina physiotherapist, is stopped at the Franco-Belgian border and found to be carrying Neoton, a creatine derivative, and Diprophos, a corticoid. Festina, who were kicked out of last year's Tour, claim that Keyaerts had a prescription to carry it on account of his allergy to wasp stings.

                         Note: Festina were the prime culprits in last year's doping scandal, which began when Voet, a masseur with the team, was caught at another border post with huge quantities of drugs and syringes in the boot of his car. Festina's riders - with the exception of Virenque and captain Pascal Herve - admitted taking part in a coordinated doping programme, and even contributing to a slush fund to buy banned substances.

                         June 23: Festina sack Keyaerts for "breaking team rules". A statement from the team's executive director reads: "Keyaerts was transporting these medicines without the authorization of the team. We will have to see if some of these substances were on their way to some of our riders. If they were, then we will take appropriate measures."

                         Commenting on the Keyaerts affair, Marie-George Buffet, the French Sports Minister, urges the banning of creatine.

                         Meanwhile, the Cofidis team restore to their squad the Belgian rider, Frank  Vandenbroucke, who has convinced them of his "complete innocence" in the Bertrand Lavelot-Bernard Sainz doping inquiry. Cofidis will start the 1999 Tour today, even though one of their stars, Philippe Gaumont, was banned for failing a dope test.

                         June 24: The Italian Olympic Committee's investigators conclude that charges against Marco Pantani, last year's champion, should be dropped, but agree to investigate further Roberto Rempi, a team doctor accused of failing in his duty to protect the health of his riders.

                         Pantani had been forced out of the Giro d'Italia before the penultimate stage when blood tests revealed a hematocrit (red blood cell) level two per cent over the permitted 50 per cent. A high count normally indicates use of EPO.  Pantani withdrew from this year's Tour, thus saving Leblanc and Jean-Claude Killy, the organization's president, the discomfort of having to decide whether to ban him.

                         Meanwhile, Italy's Francesco Casagrande returns from a nine-month suspension to win the Tour of Switzerland. Casagrande had been banned last September after twice testing positive with high levels of testosterone.  He calls the victory his "personal revenge" on the Italian Professional Cycling Association, who had issued the suspension. Casagrande's team - Vini Caldirola - had been thrown out of the Tour de France the week before, after the Ukrainian Sergei Gontchar returned a positive test before the Swiss Tour's third stage.

                         June 25: The Swiss Cycling Federation open an investigation into the LampreDaikin team after a German television programme, Sport Aktuell, allege that one of their reporters saw a team car dump a sack full of drugs and syringes during the Swiss Tour. Oscar Camenzind, the team's Swiss world champion, denies any wrongdoing and claims he was tested three times during the race.

                         June 29: The sensation. Virenque is readmitted to the Tour on the orders of the sport's world governing body. The ban on Saiz is also lifted. The Tour's organizers issue a statement, saying they "deplore" the UCI's decision.

                         June 30: Buffet calls the UCI's decree "deplorable" and "an insult to France". In the end, this all leads to one of the bigger philosophical questions of the century: does sport have any meaning if you have to cheat to do it?  Does the Tour de France have any validity if you have to saturate yourself with artificial substances just to survive it? There is another nagging question: does the result itself have any meaning if it is determined by a sliding scale of  chemical assistance in the peloton? In his book, Voet writes: "The older drugs enabled a rider to get the most out of himself; EPO transforms him into a different rider." The implication is plain. The real champion may never win.

                         The Tour itself has tried a clever manouevre, shifting blame on to cycling itself. Leblanc said in a recent interview: "If anyone was to blame for last year, it was the sport: the riders, the team managers, the team doctors, the people who used to be known as carers - soigneurs - but can't be called that anymore. Let's just call them assistants. The 1998 Tour forced all those involved in the sport to examine their conscience. Eleven months on, I feel I've learnt more about doping techniques and the methods of modern cycling than I'd learnt in 20 years in the sport."

                         The Tour de France, unquestionably, is a magnificent, enthralling carnival of  human energy, swishing and clanking its way through some of the world's most beautiful countryside. But the Tour, more even than track and field, perhaps, is proof that where the human body stops in sport pharmacy starts. For his book, In Pursuit Of The Yellow Jersey, the veteran American race reporter, Sam Abt, went to interview Virenque.

                         Pressed by Abt to confirm or deny he took part in Festina's doping programme, Virenque said: "To deny or not to deny means nothing. I never admitted and I've never been positive. A lot of people want me to be positive. But I'm no more positive than any other rider. I've always adapted to the rules. There were things that were said with the justice [the investigators]. I explained myself. Later, there will be a judgment and we will know more."

                         Maybe we know too much already.