The two favored contenders in the the 2006 Tour de France have been thrown out in shame, caught up in a blood doping probe that started in May.
Ivan Basso, looking for his first Tour de France win, and Jan Ullrich, hoping to fulfill the promise he showed as a young Tour winner in 1997, will be watching the Tour from the sidelines this year.
The decision came less than 24 hours before the three-week race is set to begin. It changes the whole complexion of the race, and could help propel Americans like Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie to the front of the pack.
The news of Basso's and Ullrich's ouster came after Spanish authorities released the names of 37 cyclists involved in the Operacion Puerto probe, at least nine were slated to race beginning Saturday. Spanish police busted Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes in May. He's suspected of helping cyclists and other athletes dope their blood, then cover up the cheating by using transfusions of clean blood.
There's no finding of guilty among the cyclists who have been suspended; ethics rules state that cyclists can't compete if they're the subject of a drug investigation.
What a tragic beginning to the 2006 Tour de France. With the absence of Lance Armstrong after a string of 7 championships, the field was open for one of the peloton's other stars to rise to the top.
It may prove that the lure of getting an extra boost to solidify that chance for greatness might have been too great for the cyclists who had the most to gain this year — Basso and Ullrich.
Now the two who had the most to win are the Tour's biggest losers.
Basso: With his win in May at the Giro d'Italia, he was looking to be the first cyclist since countryman Marco Pantani to win both the Giro and Tour in the same year. Now, he could even have his Giro championship stripped from him. At 28, however, he can always come back.
Ullrich: At age 32, I'd say his career is kaput. He won in 1997 to great fanfare as the next cycling icon, but his lack of year-round dedication led to a string or second and third place finishes. Apparently, he needed help to make those annual spring comebacks from a winter of feasting.
In spite of all the tough talk about dealing with doping in cycling, I was afraid that tour and team officials would balk when it was learned two such highly placed cyclists were involved in the Operacion Puerto affair. Apparently, when the evidence was presented, they didn't blink. Ullrich, Basso and a few others named were suspended by their respective teams.
The full list of 37 cyclists named by Spanish authorities is posted online at Eurosport. In addition to Ullrich and Basso, among the others are:
Francisco Mancebo: The 4th place finisher last year and master mountain climber, he had promise of a high finish this year as leader of the AG2R team. He's out. (VeloNews reports that, at age 30, he's retired from cycling.)
Nine riders on the Astana-Wurth team: This is the team managed by Manalo Saiz, who was caught red-handed with evidence in the blood doping probe. The team was formerly Liberty Seguros, before that sponsor dropped out. Interestingly, team leader Alexandre Vinokourov is not named as one of the cheating cyclists. (Update: Adhering to the ethics code, Astana suspended five of its riders on the Tour roster. That prevents Vinokourov from competing because his team would have only 4 riders in the Tour.
Thirteen riders on the Communauté de Valence (aka Comunidad Valenciana) team: This team had already been “uninvited” from the Tour.
Oscar Seville: Teammate of Ullrich's on T-Mobile. Gone.
Basically, what's happening is that the UCI's ethical charter requires that cyclists be barred from competition if they are implicated in a doping investigation. They may later be cleared of charges, which is why Ullrich and some others say they are innocent.