American riders start strong at reshaped Tour de France

Published 1:19 am Sunday, July 2, 2006

With the first Tour de France of the post-Lance Armstrong era rocked by one of the worst doping scandals in cycling’s history, American riders may be in good position to take advantage of the depleted field.

On Saturday, George Hincapie lost by a split second to big Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd in the opening time trial of the sport’s premier race. David Zabriskie placed third and Floyd Landis was ninth, making the United States the only country with three racers in the top 10.

“This is the first year I’m going to try and see what I can do,” said Hincapie, the only rider to race with Armstrong on his record seven straight Tour wins. “I know I’ve trained hard, I don’t know how far I can go. But I’m ready and I started the Tour well, and I just hope I can continue to improve.”

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The Tour was still reeling from the previous day, when 1997 winner Jan Ullrich and Tour of Italy champion Ivan Basso were among nine riders sent home for suspected doping. It was the biggest drug scandal to hit the sport in years, perhaps ever.

Hincapie, Landis and Levi Leipheimer, another American who was 36th in Saturday’s race against the clock over 4.4 miles, find their chances of succeeding Armstrong enhanced now that the top four behind Armstrong from last year — Basso, Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo and Alexandre Vinokourov — are out.

Leipheimer could be the biggest American hope, despite his slow start Saturday. The Butte, Mont., native won the Dauphine Libere, a traditional Tour tuneup, in June. He was sixth at the last Tour.

“If I can ride the way I did in the Dauphine, I think I can win,” he said. He said he had not trained “very hard” since then, so was not surprised to feel “a little sluggish” in the prologue time trial. “It’s OK. It’s three weeks and I planned it so that it goes well for three weeks, not just one day,” he said.

Like others in the field, the 32-year-old Leipheimer is having to readjust to the reshaped field and identify new potential rivals. He cited three: Landis, Australian Cadel Evans, who placed 14th on Saturday, and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who placed fifth and whom Armstrong last year said “could be the future of cycling.”

Zabriskie, from Salt Lake City, said his CSC team was still reeling from the withdrawal of Basso, their leader who was aiming to become the first rider since 1998 to win the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in the same year.

“Everyone’s still dealing with their feelings — it’s a pretty big loss,” he said. “Honestly we haven’t talked about the plan for the race, for the future.”

Basso and the other riders were withdrawn after Spanish authorities confirmed to Tour organizers that they were suspected of links to an alleged doping ring centered around a doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, who was arrested in Spain in May. Vinokourov, who finished fifth last year, was not among those named but five of his teammates were, forcing him out, too.

Many riders and managers from opposing teams said cycling had sent a strong signal that doping will not be tolerated. If found guilty, the riders risk four-year bans, said Pat McQuaid, head of the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body.

“They shouldn’t be just removed from the race, they should be removed from the sport and their licenses torn up,” French rider Carlos Da Cruz said.

As reports of the scandal emerged weeks ago, Ullrich, his longtime adviser Rudy Pevenage and his teammate Oscar Sevilla gave their T-Mobile squad signed statements saying they never had contacts with Fuentes.

But T-Mobile spokesman Christian Frommert said Saturday that the Spanish probe showed that Pevenage had sent messages and made phone calls to Fuentes, and that Sevilla had called the doctor, too. Although Ullrich did not seem to call Fuentes himself, Pevenage appeared to have cryptically referred to the German in communications with the doctor, Frommert added.

French sports newspaper L’Equipe said the Spanish probe linked Ullrich to substances including blood, growth hormones and testosterone patches. Basso, under the pseudonym “Birillo,” was connected with blood samples.