Wow. Just wow.
STRASBOURG, France -- That archaic French form of punishment, the guillotine, was revived Friday at the world's most famous bicycle race. The top of the Tour de France field was summarily lopped off after names were finally named in official documents that made their way across the border from a Spanish doping investigation.
Ivan Basso is gone, leaving his CSC team, which includes three U.S. riders, leaderless. Germany's Jan Ullrich is out, his quixotic quest to repeat his precocious 1997 Tour victory likely over for good now. Spain's Francisco Mancebo received the news of his suspension by saying he'd quit the sport.
Alexander Vinokourov, the Kazakh rider who has livened things up the past few years with his attacking style, wasn't even implicated in the scandal but lost his ride after five of his Astana-Wurth teammates were named.
Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo and Vinokourov finished second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, behind Lance Armstrong last year. All of them will leave their own sad trails behind in this race, but Ullrich and Basso's absences will be felt the most.
You think Armstrong's departure is affecting cycling interest in the United States? Just watch the drop-off in Germany now, where no one cared about the sport before Ullrich, the red-haired, ruddy faced kid from Rostock in the former East Germany, emerged a decade ago. Some German popularity polls put him right up there with Michael Schumacher, the revered Formula One driver.
I can attest to the buzz Ullrich generated, just having spent three weeks in Germany covering the World Cup. In every train station newsstand all over the country, racks and racks of magazine covers displayed one image: "Ulli," clad in the distinctive hot pink of his T-Mobile team. For one month each summer, at least, he got more face time than most supermodels.
People grumbled about his underachieving ways -- he finished second five times, and third once -- but they also loved him. He was human. He gained weight in the offseason and occasionally partied too hearty. Don't we all. Good thing there's that little soccer tournament going on to distract sports fans in his homeland.
Basso was Italy's brightest Tour hope since the controversial and flamboyant 1998 winner Marco Pantani, who later died of an apparent accidental drug overdose, his career ruined by doping charges. Italy is not about to fall out of love with cycling, but Basso was a particularly endearing character who fulfilled a bedside promise to his dying mother by winning the Tour of Italy last month.
Pulling these guys off the start line poses a few problems for those of us raised on innocent-until-proven-guilty. Barry Bonds wouldn't be playing baseball right now if these standards were applied in the United States. Either cycling is contorting itself to prove it's doing everything it can to rid the sport of cheats, or there's specific, damning detail in those Spanish files that no one's talking about yet.
Trying to sort out who was a suspect and whose name was being thrown up on the Internet like pasta on a wall has been pretty frustrating for the reporters bunkered in at the Tour press center just outside downtown Strasbourg.
A rider's mug shot would go up on a Web site, then come down. There's still no evidence aside from what's been in the Spanish media, no indictments, no charges, but many European outlets have rushed to print lists of the condemned, seemingly not abashed by the fact that the numbers and names change hourly....
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