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The Tour de France was poised to begin on Saturday without its top favourites after their teams pulled them out on the eve of the race in response to links with a Spanish doping investigation.

The race will now start without any of the top five from last year’s Tour. The news stunned the cycling community and raised the spectre of another Tour marred by a drugs scandal following the 1998 “Festina Affair” which almost led to the first-ever cancellation of the race.

Germany’s Jan Ullrich, 32, of the T-Mobile team and Italian Ivan Basso, 28, of the CSC team headed a list of nine riders who had been expected to compete in cycling’s most prestigious event published by the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste International. The UCI said the riders were linked to a Spanish doctor at the centre of the drug probe.

Ullrich was third last year and is currently the only rider who has won the Tour before, while Basso was second in last year’s race and this year, won the Giro d’Italia in May, a three-week race considered as demanding as the Tour.

This year’s race had already been expected to be the most open in years following the retirement last year of Lance Armstrong, the seven-times champion who won last year.

Francisco Mancebo, fourth last year and considered a potential Tour winner, was on the UCI’s list along with Joseba Beloki, who came second to Lance Armstrong in 2002. Others were Sergio Paulinho, Isidro Nozal, Allan Davis, Alberto Contador and Oscar Sevilla.

Another favourite, Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov who was fifth last year, will not be racing after his team, Astana-Wurth, pulled out of the race on Friday because five of their team - Beloki, Nozal, Contador, Paulinho and Davis - were listed by the UCI. Teams must begin with at least six riders.

“The UCI underlines that the questioning does not mean that it is established that the above riders have committed an anti-doping violation,” the organisation said in a statement. “However, the contained indications ... are serious enough and the UCI has informed the UCI ProTeams accordingly in order to allow them to make any useful decision in application of the code of conduct.”

The list is the latest development stemming from a Spanish investigation, Operación Puerto, which began with a series of raids in late May and centres around the activities of Eufamiano Fuentes, a Spanish doctor. The police have since been trying to link nicknames the doctor used in his records with professional athletes in cycling and other sports.

The Tour’s organisers and the UCI had been pressing the Spanish authorities for details of the investigation ahead of the race. In 1998, evidence of doping in the Festina team unfolded during the Tour, sparking rider protests and team withdrawals and almost leading to the cancellation of the race.

The T-Mobile team withdrew its two riders, Ullrich and Sevilla, on Friday morning, along with Rudy Pevenage, a team official. The team said that although the three had not been proven to have broken doping rules, they had misled the team about their links to Fuentes.

Cycling team directors have been unanimous this time that riders identified in the investigation would be withdrawn and not replaced.

The decision to withdraw will have been especially tough on Astana’s other riders after the team had battled in court to force ASO, the Tour organiser to allow it to race. ASO had asked it not to attend, concerned about team owner Manolo Saiz, who was one of the first sport insiders to be linked with Fuentes in this investigation.

The team had already changed its name after its main sponsor, insurer Liberty Seguros, withdrew in May following Saiz’s involvement, citing a contract clause allowing it to pull out if a serious drug scandal arose.

Many sponsors have moved towards a tough “zero tolerance” policy on doping since the Festina affair.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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