On the eve of the first Tour de France in years without cycling superstar Lance Armstrong, nine riders - including two of the favorites - were barred from the race in yet another of the doping scandals that trouble this sport.
Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's perpetual bridesmaid during the Texan's string of seven wins, and Ivan Basso, second last year and deemed by many the heir apparent, were banned from the 93rd Tour on the eve of its prologue today in Strasbourg, a short sprint against the clock to determine who starts in the yellow jersey.
The scandal, which has been building for several weeks, comes out of a Spanish police investigation of a laboratory that was alleged to be dispensing illegal performance-enhancing drugs as well as using the technique of blood-doping: giving riders additional blood, often their own, just before big races.
Until yesterday, the damage appeared to be confined to one Spanish-based team, but more information emerged in the past few days, leading to the bans. Tour officials, aware of the image of their sport as mired in drug use, ban riders who are even under suspicion of these forbidden practices.
"The enemy is not cycling; the enemy is doping," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said yesterday.
The move brings back memories of the scandal-dogged 1998 Tour, when police raided riders' rooms searching for illegal drugs. One team withdrew, and many riders protested their treatment. It was the next year that Armstrong, coming back from cancer, began his amazing skein, helping to elevate the image of the sport, especially in the United States.
Though the absence of Armstrong - who is fighting the latest in a long string of drug allegations - was bound to lower the appeal of this year's Tour for Americans, these latest bans will undoubtedly help the chances of the top U.S. riders in the field. Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer and, perhaps, George Hincapie must now be listed among the favorites.
Landis is the clear leader of the Swiss-based Phonak team, and he has looked particularly strong in time trials this year, something that adds to his status because this year's Tour features two of those individual races against the clock - both lengthy. The second comes on the penultimate day of the Tour, and many think it will decide the championship.
It was the inclusions of these time trials that led many to favor Ullrich to end his run in Armstrong's shadow, finally adding another win to his 1997 victory. This ban could well be the end of his career.
"The only thing I can say so far is that I'm shocked, that I still have nothing to do with this, that I'm a victim now and that I'm prepared [for the Tour] in this year like never before," Ullrich told reporters outside his hotel near Strasbourg, before leaving for home.
"This is the worst case of my career so far. I'll go on fighting at any rate. But at this moment, I'm desperate."
Leipheimer leads the German-based Gerolsteiner team. He is coming off a victory in the Dauphine Libere, a race that went over many of the tough mountain climbs seen in the Tour. He is a top rider but has yet to show he is among the best. The banning of Ullrich and Basso - who was heading back to Italy, according to his team - might give him that opportunity.
Hincapie could be the best story, the one that could bring the Tour out of the shadows of both Armstrong and the doping scandal.
The likable New York native - he now lives in South Carolina - has been Armstrong's trusted lieutenant during all seven of those Tour victories. He showed last year that he could climb with a victory on a mountain stage and has improved his time-trialing.
Leader in doubt
But it is not clear that he will even be the leader of Armstrong's old Discovery team. That role could go to Italian Paolo Salvodelli, a good climber who won the Tour of Italy last year. Or designated star-of-the-future Yaroslav Popovych of Ukraine, who finished 12th last year in his first Tour. It will probably not be decided until the first time trial, next Saturday.
If it's Hincapie, and he and his charismatic smile emerge with real chance of winning this Tour, that might be the story to captivate an American audience.
No one would like that better than executives at OLN, the cable network that has chronicled Armstrong's ascent. It will be almost all-Tour-all-the-time for the next three weeks.
"We've been preparing for this," said OLN spokeswoman Amy Phillips of life-after-Lance on the Tour. "2004 was the first year when we didn't know if he was coming back the next year and we really started the education process, taking advantage of the people coming in to see Lance.
"We know we are going to take a hit in the ratings, but we hope we have done enough to educate and grow the audience to offset the loss a bit," she said. "Any time any sport loses an icon like that, it's going to have an impact."
Armstrong, who has part ownership of the Discovery team, should be on hand in France. He will probably have little but scorn for Tour officialdom, which snubbed him at the announcement of this year's route, implying that he was guilty of the drug accusations.
The latest charge comes in the leak of testimony before an arbitration panel deciding whether Armstrong deserved a $5 million bonus for winning the 2004 Tour. The company that insured the bonus balked at paying because of the drug charges.
In the testimony, Betsey Andreu, wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, said that she was in an Indianapolis hospital room in 1996 just after Armstrong had surgery for his cancer and heard him tell a doctor that he used a variety of performance-enhancing drugs. Frankie Andreu backed his wife's recollection.
Armstrong has responded forcefully, denying the charge. He points out that the arbitration panel, after looking at his medical records and hearing from his doctors during three months of hearings, awarded him the $5 million and an additional $2.5 million in extra damages. He also charged in a statement from his lawyers that Betsy Andreu was out to get him, that she was "so obsessive that even the insurance company employee responsible for attempting to gather evidence of drug use by Lance ... complained of her constant phone calls and suggestions."
Intriguingly, Frankie Andreu will be one of OLN's reporters, again joining Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen, who are covering their 21st Tour together.
If an American does ride his way into America's sporting consciousness, he will be following Armstrong's path, just as Armstrong built on the foundation of Greg LeMond's three victories in 1986, '89 and '90.
"Those wins by LeMond were the big icebreakers for cycling in America," said cycling historian Peter Joffre Nye. "For instance, when LeMond won the world championship in 1983, all he got in Sports Illustrated was a little picture in Faces in the Crowd. It was his Tour victories that elevated his stature and, in the process, the visibility of bicycle racing in the United States. Lance took it to the next level."
It might never reach the level that Nye chronicles in his new book, The Six-Day Bicycle Races, about contests on banked indoor tracks that drew huge crowds in American cities during the first third of the 20th century. Bicycle racers of that era were among the biggest stars of American sport.
"In 1920, Babe Ruth was playing his first year in New York, hit 54 home runs and made $20,000," Nye said. "There were a dozen bike racers making between $25,000 and $35,000. ... The six-day races were the places celebrities went to be seen, like Jack Nicholson showing up at NBA games. There was glitz and glamour."
Armstrong brought glitz and glamour back to American bicycle racing. This year's Tour will show whether it has gone away.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.