Tour de France starts with Americans 2nd, 3rd
STRASBOURG, France -- Norway's Thor Hushovd began the post-Lance Armstrong era of the Tour de France by winning the prologue Saturday, a day after two of cycling's best riders were swept away in a doping scandal that has shaken the sport.
Hushovd becomes the first rider to wear the leader's yellow jersey in a race thrown wide open by the investigation in Spain. He narrowly beat George Hincapie, an American who once rode with Armstrong. Another American, David Zabriskie, was third over the 4.4-mile time-trial course through this eastern French city.
Hincapie is one of the new favorites to succeed Armstrong, the seven-time Tour champion, after Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich were barred from the race Friday for suspected doping.
The prologue favors fast, explosive and powerful riders rather than lithe mountain specialists. Hushovd is not a contender for the overall title because he tends to struggle in the mountains that come later in the three-week race. But he is looking to win sprint stages in the first week and keep the green jersey he won last year as the Tour's best sprinter.
He finished a split second faster than Hincapie. Officially, they were given the same time of 8 minutes, 17 seconds. Zabriskie, winner of last year's first time trial, was four seconds back.
"I've been really confident the last few weeks, the last month, because I knew my form was there," Hushovd said.
Several other favorites did well, including Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, who finished fifth, and American Floyd Landis, another former Armstrong teammate who placed ninth, nine seconds behind Hushovd.
Hushovd welcomed the expulsions that left the race without some of its headline names. Basso was runner-up to Armstrong in last year and won this year's Tour of Italy. Ullrich won the 1997 Tour and was third in 2005. Francisco Mancebo, who was fourth last year, also was excluded Friday.
"All that is just sad for cycling, but it is good that they are cleaning up," Hushovd said. "I hope the public will support us as they always have at the Tour de France."
Basso said on Italian television that he is "not well" because he had not been formally notified of any investigation.
"But inside I am serene," he said. "And that is the most important thing."
In all, nine suspected racers were withdrawn Friday by their teams. That forced out Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan because his team was left with too few riders to make the start. Vinokourov was fifth last year.
Fans, riders and team officials remained abuzz Saturday over the chaotic developments, with much speculation about which cyclists would fill the void left by Basso and Ullrich and by Armstrong's retirement last year.
French riders were among the most pleased at the expulsions. 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."
Spanish authorities Thursday provided Tour organizers with the summary of a police investigation into a ring that is thought to have provided riders and other athletes with banned drugs, performance-enhancing blood transfusions and doping expertise.
Tour organizers used that information to pressure teams to pull out implicated riders. Ullrich, Basso and others are suspected of having had contacts with a doctor at the heart of the alleged doping network, Eufemiano Fuentes. He was arrested in May along with four other people. Both riders denied links to Fuentes.
But a spokesman for Ullrich's T-Mobile team, Christian Frommert, said Saturday that the Spanish dossier showed that Rudy Pevenage, Ullrich's longtime adviser, had sent messages and made phone calls to Fuentes.
Ullrich's teammate Oscar Sevilla, who was ousted, 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 T-Mobile.
The Spanish report linked Ullrich to substances including blood, growth hormones and testosterone patches, the French sports daily L'Equipe reported Saturday, citing parts of the dossier that was provided to Tour organizers. Basso, under the pseudonym "Birillo," was connected with blood samples, the report said.
As reports of the scandal emerged weeks ago, Ullrich, Sevilla and Pevenage had given T-Mobile signed statements saying that they had never had contacts with Fuentes.
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.
Basso's CSC team said he insisted he was innocent. Teammate Jens Voigt said that had Spanish authorities gone public earlier with their findings, Basso might have been able to prepare a defense and been able to race.
"His whole year is ruined, and that is sad," he said.