Four of top five '05 finishers won't start Tour this year

STRASBOURG, France -- A major doping scandal threw the first Tour de France of the post-Lance Armstrong era into chaos Friday, with four top 2005 returning finishers -- including favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso -- forced out of the world's premier cycling race under a cloud of suspicion.

Some in cycling hailed the decision to bar Ullrich, Basso, Francisco Mancebo and other riders implicated in a doping probe in Spain as a breakthrough for efforts to clean up the oft-tainted sport. The scandal could rank as cycling's biggest, given the high profile of the riders and the large number suspected.

Basso finished second in last year's Tour behind seven-time champion Armstrong, now retired, with Ullrich third and Mancebo fourth. Alexander Vinokourov, who was fifth last year, is also out because his team, Astana-Wurth, withdrew.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said the organizers' determination to fight doping was "total."

"The enemy is not cycling, the enemy is doping," he said.

The Tour, already wide open without Armstrong, will now begin on Saturday with no clear favorite to succeed the Texan who retired last year after his record seventh straight win. The race will also have a reduced field of 176 riders, instead of the 189 originally expected, because teams agreed not to replace those riders being sent home for suspected doping.

The scandal, brewing for weeks in Spain, broke open in the space of a few hours in Strasbourg, the starting point for this year's three-week, 2,272-mile trek across France and neighboring countries.

It's the biggest doping crisis to the hit the sport since the Festina scandal in 1998 nearly derailed the Tour. The Festina team was ejected from the race after customs officers found a large stash of banned drugs in a team car.

Late Thursday night, Spanish authorities sent race organizers more than 40 pages summarizing police investigations into a ring that allegedly supplied riders and other athletes with banned drugs, doping expertise and performance-enhancing blood transfusions.

The police report implicated nine riders -- Basso and Ullrich included -- who were signed up for this Tour, cycling's governing body said.

Their teams were informed and, with the exception of one squad, all reacted quickly Friday, telling their racers they were out.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and a five-time runner-up, and other members of his T-Mobile squad were heading to a previously scheduled news conference Friday morning when they got word that he, teammate Oscar Sevilla and Ullrich's longtime adviser Rudy Pevenage were implicated.

"We kindly asked our bus driver to turn around and go back to the hotel," team spokesman Luuc Eisenga said.

The information implicating Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage was "clear enough and didn't leave any doubt," he said, refusing to elaborate.

Neither Spanish authorities nor Tour organizers released the full report. But Spanish media reports linked Ullrich, Basso and more than 50 other cyclists to Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor who was among five people arrested in May when police seized banned performance-enhancers at a Madrid doping clinic.

Outgoing Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the Spanish
investigators cited doping "dosages" apparently prescribed for
Ullrich, Basso, Sevilla and Mancebo, who was also
withdrawn from the Tour by his team, AG2R.

"We are no longer in the domain of suspicion," he said. "We
understood that there was organized doping with these people. There
is no question of seeing them at the Tour de France.''

Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage had previously signed declarations
that they never had contact with Fuentes. But the Spanish probe
indicated otherwise, said T-Mobile spokesman Stefan Wagner.

Asked whether T-Mobile would consider cutting ties with Ullrich
completely, he replied "certainly ... we are now demanding
evidence of his innocence."

Ullrich, at age 32 nearing the end of his career, said he was
"absolutely shocked."

'I could cry going home in such good shape," he said. "I need
a few days for myself and then I'll try to prove my innocence with
the help of my lawyer. And I'll go on fighting."

Basso, runner-up to Armstrong last year, was heading back to
Italy, his team said. He had been hoping to become the first rider
since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win both the Tours of Italy and
France in the same year, having won the Italian race in May.

Basso told his CSC team he was innocent. But the team said the
suspicion would have made the Italian's participation in the Tour

"It would be big chaos if those riders remain in the race,"
said his squad manager, Bjarne Riis. "We have to protect

Riis noted that Basso's contract forbids him from working with
doctors outside CSC.

"Ivan must prove with his lawyer that he is innocent," Riis
said. "I believe in Ivan but I have been forced to take the
necessary steps."

Mancebo, fourth at the last Tour, suggested that he would now
retire, said his team manager Vincent Lavenu, who added that he
took that to be "an admission" of the rider's apparent guilt.

He and others said the scandal could prove a milestone in the
fight against doping, not least by scaring other riders away from
the temptation of banned performance enhancers.

But "I'm not convinced that it's the only network that needs to
be dismantled," Lavenu said.

The only team that did not react as quickly Friday was
Astana-Wurth, which cycling's governing body said had five riders
implicated: Joseba Beloki of Spain, runner-up at the 2002 Tour,
Allan Davis from Australia; Alberto Contador and Isidro Nozal from
Spain; and Sergio Paulinho from Portugal.

At Astana, "it looks like a system of team doping," said the
Tour's new director, Christian Prudhomme.

Finally, on Friday evening, the team said it was withdrawing the
five riders. That left Astana with fewer than the minimum six
needed to start and forced out the entire squad -- including
pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov from Kazakhstan.

With Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov and Mancebo out, other riders
have greater hopes of succeeding Armstrong as the next Tour de
France champion, or at least taking a place on the podium. But no
one stands out as a firm favorite in the reshaped field.

Americans Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, both former
teammates of Armstrong, are contenders. So, too, is Spain's
Alejandro Valverde, the 26-year-old whom Armstrong said last year
"could be the future of cycling."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.