Tour de France Begins, Minus Several Stars

Bicycling's premier event is underway, but a doping scandal has removed some of its biggest stars. One day before the start of the race, officials withdrew Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and a number of other riders implicated in a doping investigation that first erupted in May. NPR's Scott Simon talks to author Daniel Coyle about the scandal.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, cracking the uncrackable code.

But first, the Tour de France is already underway, but without some of its best known performers. Yesterday cycling team officials, acting in tandem with tour organizers, removed Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich and a number of other riders who had been hoping - forgive me - because their names had been brought into a doping investigation that first erupted in Spain in May.

Daniel Coyle is the author of Lance Armstrong's War, a great book called Hardballs, too. He joins us from his home in Homer, Alaska. Daniel, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DANIEL COYLE (Author, Lance Armstrong's War): You're welcome.

SIMON: Please fill us in on some of the details of this investigation. How did it come about? What did Spanish authorities find?

Mr. COYLE: It came about - this all surrounds a doctor in Madrid named Eufemiano Fuentes. Spanish police began investigating him. He had a checkered reputation and was linked to some doping issues before. They put in wiretaps, they filmed the office. And according to the report that was released, Fuentes was essentially running a Wal-Mart of blood doping and other type of doping activities.

See, there were doses of human growth hormone, of EPO. And most vividly, the vivid snapshot that comes out of this investigation is a freezer that was filled with 100 or more bags of frozen blood, coded with names. And those names are the ones that correspond. And perhaps the DNA also corresponds.

The coding of those names is something they seem to maybe were fairly straightforward about. It's really the blatancy of this thing that interests the most. The code for Basso, apparently, was the name of his dog. The code for Jan was somewhat more simply, Jan.

SIMON: Now we should underscore, they haven't - particularly these big name riders haven't yet offered their defense. Nothing has actually been proven. Why would the tour organizers go ahead and the team organizers go ahead and press for their removal?

Mr. COYLE: Well, for one thing cycling has had a - this has been a shadow side of the sport for a long time. But this issue of legal proof versus sporting proof, the teams were shown enough and they've commented. They're saying what we have seen is concrete.

The riders all, prior to the tour, signed an issue of denial that they were associated. And once it was shown that they were connected to this Wal-Mart, they were removed.

SIMON: Of course for Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, who finished second and third last year, they've been waiting for their chance and for Lance Armstrong's retirement for a number of years. This has to be a big disappointment, for which perhaps they have only themselves to blame.

But this does give you the opportunity to talk about an American rider named Floyd Landis who's an interesting story.

Mr. COYLE: He really is. For the last five or six years, Lance Armstrong, of course, has dominated the scene and has seemed much like Superman. His cape has hardly been wrinkled, as he has dominated this tour. But as far as character goes, his ex-teammate Floyd Landis - an ex-Mennonite, a Pennsylvanian, 30 years old - is much more like a Walter Mitty character.

He came to America, in a way, when he was about 20, after leaving his home near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, while Armstrong, in Gerona, where I lived researching the book - you know, Armstrong was well known for being seen in, you know, a brown BMW, and occasionally in a private jet. Landis was known for being seen riding his toy scooter. So they're fairly different personalities. Very refreshing guy. And the stage is a little more open than it was a few hours ago.

SIMON: Yeah. Who are a couple of other names that we ought to be watching?

Mr. COYLE: Levi Leipheimer, a fellow from Montana who rides for Gerolsteiner. George Hincapie is another American who will be worth watching, along with a Spanish rider named Alejandro Valverde.

SIMON: Well, Daniel Coyle, who's the author of Lance Armstrong's War, speaking with us from Homer, Alaska. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Daniel.

Mr. COYLE: You're welcome.

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