STRASBOURG, France – The Tour de France began Saturday a day after cycling's showcase event was jolted by a major doping scandal that swept two favorites from the race.
The 4.4-mile time trial most likely would give a first indication on how the three-week ride around France will develop now that seven-time champion Lance Armstrong is in retirement and Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich on Friday were among those ousted from the competition.
France's Cedric Coutouly set off first among the 176 riders scheduled for the prologue, in which they start one by one onto the course in a race against the clock. George Hincapie, an American who once rode on Armstrong's team, was scheduled to race last along a route featuring several sharp turns.
The first Tour of the post-Armstrong era had already offered a chance for new stars to step forward — even before Basso and Ullrich and seven other riders were banned because of the Spanish doping investigation.
Fans, riders and team officials were abuzz over the chaotic developments and wondering which cyclists would rise to the moment.
French riders were among the most pleased. They have long voiced suspicions that their weakness in recent Tours may have been because riders from other countries face less stringent doping controls.
"For us, it's really great news," said Carlos Da Cruz, of the Francaise des Jeux team. "They shouldn't be just removed from the race, they should be removed from the sport and their licenses torn up."
In May, police in Spain carried out arrests and raids, seizing drugs and frozen blood believed to have been prepared for banned, performance-enhancing transfusions. Since then, the names of riders said to have had contacts with Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor among those arrested, have been leaked to the Spanish media.
The Spanish dossier showed that Rudy Pevenage, director of Ullrich's T-Mobile team, had sent messages and made phone calls to Fuentes, team spokesman Christian Frommert said Saturday.
Ullrich's teammate Oscar Sevilla, who was also ousted, had also made phone calls to Fuentes. Pevenage appeared to have cryptically referred to Ullrich in communications with the doctor, but the German rider had not appeared to call Fuentes himself. Pevenage also has been excluded by his team.
The Spanish report linked Ullrich to substances including blood, growth hormones and testosterone patches, French sports daily L'Equipe reported Saturday, citing parts the Spanish dossier that was provided to Tour organizers on Thursday. Basso, under the pseudonym "Birillo," was connected with blood samples, the report said.
As reports of the scandal emerged, T-Mobile riders had signed a statement affirming they had not had any contact with Fuentes.
"Why did they lie?" said Frommert, referring to Ullrich and Sevilla.
Under the sport's ethical charter, riders may be barred from racing while they under investigation for doping, but they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The extent of Basso's implication was not immediately clear. His Team CSC said he insisted he was innocent, but it added that suspicion would have made his participation in the Tour difficult.
Basso, the recent Giro d'Italia winner, was runner-up to Armstrong in last year's Tour. Ullrich won the 1997 Tour and was third last year. Francisco Mancebo, an AG2R rider who was fourth last year, also was excluded.