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Protest Delays Tour de France

July 24, 1998 GMT

CAP D’AGDE, France (AP) _ Angered over the drug scandal that has dominated cycling’s premier event, Tour de France riders protested Friday by delaying the start of racing.

For two hours, the cyclists stood and sat before getting on their bikes.

``We are fed up with being treated like cattle. So we are going to behave like cattle,″ Laurent Jalabert of France told Radio Tour, the station that follows the race.

Jalabert, the world’s top-ranked cycling the past three years, led the demonstration before the 12th stage, which was eventually won by Belgium’s Tom Steels.


``The sport is no longer interesting to anyone,″ Jalabert said. ``We won’t cycle and that’s the end of it.″

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc helped negotiate the start to the stage in a meeting with team directors.

The scandal has haunted the Tour since its July 11 start in Ireland. Armin Meier, a rider for the banned Festina team, became the first Tour de France cyclist to admit taking the banned drug EPO, a hormone that increases the red blood cell supply.

``Yes, I said that I had taken EPO, how I took it and why I took it,″ he told France Info radio. ``I’m just the victim of a system.″

Meier refused to say if his teammates had also taken the substance, and he criticized police treatment of the riders.

``I feel a little like a criminal,″ he said. ``Each rider had two police officers. They put me under pressure for four or five hours. They took everything. I undressed. They could see all of me. I went into a cell with a wooden bed. ... But I feel better inside because I have told the truth. Perhaps it is good for the sport.″

The 148-member pack finally began racing 10 miles from the official starting point, and two hours after the official starting time.

Steels won the 137-mile stage from Tarascon-sur-Ariege to Cap d’Agde in southern France, his second stage victory of the Tour.

Jann Ullrich of Germany held a 71-second overall lead over Bobby Julich of the United States after Friday’s stage. The Tour is making its way across southern France before hitting the Alps on Monday.

Saturday’s 13th stage is from Frontigan-la-Peyrade to Carpentras, covering 122 miles.

On Friday, Jalabert was part of a long breakaway. The lead was up to five minutes at one point before the pack caught up. Julich questioned Jalabert’s tactics, first by protesting and then by leaving the pack.

``I don’t know what Jalabert was trying to prove but just glad he animated the race,″ Julich said. ``He is a great champion but there are 10 more days to go and if he wants to go out and do a big ego thing because we didn’t stop the race, he will pay the price for making the breakaway.″

Jalabert is third in the overall standings, less than two minutes behind Julich.

``I was in favor of a little bit of a demonstration but no way was I in favor of stopping the stage at all,″ Julich said.

Leblanc plans to meet Saturday with a member of each team and Daniel Baal, vice president of the International Cycling Union, to discuss the drug scandal.

The director of TVM team, Cees Priem, and team doctor Andrei Mikhailov were placed in custody Friday night after being questioned in the southern town of Pamiers over allegations of drug use by the team.

Prosecutor Pierre Nalbert said an investigating judge would question both on Monday.

About 100 doses of drugs were found last March in a TVM team car near Reims, east of Paris. Police did nothing at the time, but the affair was rekindled in the wake of the Festina scandal that is rocking the cycling world.

Police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said EPO was found at the team’s hotel in Pamiers during a search on Thursday.

Leblanc said the Tour is aware of the investigation of the TVM team and will expel the Dutch squad ``if the precise elements reveal that this team didn’t respect the rules and ethics of the Tour de France the International Cycling Union.″

Three members of the Festina team, ousted from the Tour last week, admitted to police they took drugs to improve their performances, LCI news television reported.