AIX LES BAINS, France -- The Tour de France, already in turmoil over investigations into the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists, was stopped twice yesterday by riders protesting police methods, and for the first time in its 95-year history the race faced a premature end.
Only after Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director, consulted with government officials and promised some changes -- including questioning in team hotels rather than police stations -- did the riders call off their second sit-down.
But riders ripped the numbers off their jerseys, negating the results of the stage, and then rode at a moderate speed without competition, reaching the finish line nearly three hours late. Four teams quit in protest, as did a handful of individual riders. There was no assurance that the remaining 16 teams would agree to start the 18th stage in the race today.
The extent to which the Tour has now unraveled is unprecedented. The developments represent the biggest threat to the race's continuation since the second race in 1904, when cheating by riders -- including some who took the train -- almost forestalled a third race the next year.
Seven teams of the 21 originally in the race are now under suspicion for use of illegal drugs. The riders are divided in their response to the investigation and Tour officials spent yesterday trying to keep the race going until its scheduled end in Paris on Sunday. The focus of yesterday's protest was a police raid on a hotel in which four riders from the Dutch team TVM were taken to a hospital Tuesday night and tested for drugs in their urine, blood and hair. In March, a TVM car was seized by French police and found to contain what have been described as huge quantities of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
"They treated us like criminals, like animals," said one of the Dutch team's members, Jeroen Blijlevens. Referring to his roommate, Bart Voskamp, Blijlevens said: "They took Bart out of the shower, made us sign some papers and took us away."
The riders were held more than four hours for the tests and then released after midnight.
Word of their treatment did not reach the full 140-man pack until it was rolling yesterday morning in the 17th of 21 daily stages, a 92-mile ride from Albertville in the Alps to Aix les Bains. The riders also then learned that police planned to visit the hotels of four more teams, Casino and La Francaise des Jeux, both based in France, Polti, based in Italy, and ONCE, based in Spain.
As news of police treatment of the TVM riders filtered among the riders yesterday, they stopped for 25 minutes after completing about 19 miles of the stage.
"I'm fed up," said Laurent Jalabert, the French national champion, the world's top-ranked racer and a spokesman for the riders. "I can't continue under these conditions, being treated like a criminal."
He entered a team car, quitting the race, and was followed shortly by the other ONCE riders.
1. Marco Pantani, Italy, Mercatone Uno, 77: 38: 24.
2. Bobby Julich, Glenwood Springs, Colo., Cofidis, 5 minutes, 42 seconds behind.
3. Jan Ullrich, Germany, Telekom, 5: 56.
4. Fernando Escartin, Spain, Kelme, 6: 03.
5. Christophe Rinero, France, Cofidis, 8: 01.
6. Michael Boogerd, the Netherlands, Rabobank, 8: 05.
7. Rodolfo Massi, Italy, Casino, 12: 15.
8. Jean-Cyril Robin, France, U.S. Postal, 12: 34.
9. Leonardo Piepoli, Italy, Saeco, 12: 45.
10. Roland Meier, Switzerland, Cofidis, 13: 19.
11. Daniele Nardello, Italy, Mapei, 13: 36.
12. Angel Casero, Spain, Vitaliciom, 13: 54.
13. Manuel Beltran, Spain, Banesto, 14: 20.
14. Bjarne Riis, Denmark, Telekom, 14: 45
15. Giuseppe DiGrande, Italy, Mapei, 15: 13.
Also: 18. Dariusz Baranowski, Poland, U.S. Postal Service, 19: 22; zTC 25. Kevin Livingston, St. Louis, Cofidis, 30: 30; 56. Viatcheslav Ekimov, Russia, U.S. Postal Service, 1: 17: 19; 58. Peter Meinert-Nielsen, Denmark, U.S. Postal Service, 1: 21: 06; 60. Marty Jemison, Park City, Utah, U.S. Postal Service, 1: 26: 09; 68Tyler Hamilton, Brookline, Mass., U.S. Postal Service, 1: 33: 22; 70. George Hincapie, Charlotte, N.C., U.S. Postal Service, 1: 35: 19.
Pub Date: 7/30/98