Troubles Mount for Tour de France
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Tour de France looked like it was falling apart yesterday. In a 24-hour period, three high-profile riders were dismissed on suspicion of doping. One was the leading rider and wearer of the yellow jersey.
Eleanor Beardsley reports on the chaos surrounding the 94th edition of the world's most famous bicycle race.
(Soundbite of French TV news)
Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Last night, the late news broadcast erupted with the announcement that leading rider and yellow jersey wearer Michael Rasmussen had been thrown out of the Tour de France by his Rabobank Team.
While not actually caught by a drug test, Rasmussen had been under heavy suspicion for failing to report his whereabouts to drug authorities during pre-Tour training. In the middle of the night, his team held a press conference to explain why Rasmussen had been fired in the end.
Mr. NICO VERHOEVEN (Manager, Dutch Rabobank Team): (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The reason is we learned that Michael Rasmussen did not go to Mexico to train as he told us, but was actually in Italy, said Rabobank Team manager.
Just hours before Rasmussen's dismissal, Italian rider Christian Moreni was met at the 16th stage finish line by French gendarmes who took him away for questioning. Moreni's blood sample had come back positive for elevated levels of testosterone. All this just one day after star rider Alexander Vinokourov was thrown out of the race for undergoing a blood transfusion.
Cycling officials were clearly reeling from the pace of the dismissals. Jean-Francois Lamour, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, took to the airwaves to defend the tour.
Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS LAMOUR (President, World Anti-Doping Agency): (Through Translator): There are cyclists who do their job and train in transparency, and we have to have to have confidence in them. But I can't hide my worry that there will be others who will try to kill this wonderful sport.
BEARDSLEY: This morning, the news of Rasmussen's fate dominated even President Nicolas Sarkozy's high-profile trip to Libya. One newspaper said the Tour had been decapitated. Another's front page was a mock death announcement for the tour.
But cycling writer Barnaby Chesterman says this year's race is no different from any other. Performance-enhancing drugs have been a well-known secret for 30 years, he says. It's just that race organizers are finally waking up to it.
Mr. BARNABY CHESTERMAN (Freelance Sports Journalist): It's possibly a little bit too little too late. Although they are now finally waking up. They're now starting to try and fight this, having basically ignored it year after year after year. The problem is, what people are now seeing is that how can you have any faith in any former winner?
Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Those who have already lost faith in the Tour include two German broadcasters who dropped their coverage, a Swiss newspaper who stopped writing about it, and sponsors like Adidas who are considering pulling the plug.
Up until Rasmussen's dismissal, race organizers stood by their claim that the expulsions proved to their heightened checks and drug tests were working. Tour Director Christian Prudhomme issued a warning yesterday to those still in the race.
Mr. CHRISTIAN PRUDHOMME (Director, Tour de France): (Through translator) I would like to say to those who haven't quite understood that they are playing Russian roulette, and they'd better get that through their head.
BEARDSLEY: But the departure of a yellow jersey rider on doping allegations has clearly had a heavy psychological effect in a country where the Tour is a national symbol and a great summer past time. The best that this year's tour can do, it seems, is to limp across the finish line Sunday in agony.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
MONTAGNE: You can follow the Tour route through an interactive map and read more about the top contenders going to npr.org.