Thursday, July 13
Three riders kicked out at race start
 By Andrew Hood
Special to ABC Sports Online

FUTUROSCOPE, France -- The Tour de France started Saturday with the whiff of a doping scandal the race is desperately trying to shake.

Three riders were kicked out of cycling's marquee event just a few hours before the three-week 21-stage race began Saturday for failing mandatory pre-race blood tests. Andrei Hauptman, a Slovenian on the Vini Caldiroli team, Rossano Brasi, an Italian on the Polti team, and Serguei Ivanov, the current Russian national champion on the Farm Frites team, were removed from the race and handed two-week suspensions.

Blood tests were conducted Saturday morning on all 180 riders on the 20 teams starting this year's Tour. The three suspended riders were declared "unfit" to race after blood tests showed their hematocrite levels, or red blood cell count, to be unnaturally high.

The blood test cannot detect the presence of EPO, but rather a high-test result indicates the presence of the hormone in the body. Thus, riders are suspended for "health reasons." EPO, or erythropoetin, enhances endurance by increasing the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the body. The hormone has been rife in cycling since the early 1990s.

The news comes as Tour racers also face a new urine test this year that will directly detect the presence of the hormone on the body. Urine samples will be taken daily from that day's stage-winner and race leader, as well as two or three randomly selected riders. They will be frozen and then tested once the International Cycling Union (ICU), cycling's governing body, gives formal approval to the test.

"The fact that three riders were removed only proves that we are determined to rid the Tour of any cheats," said Jean-Marie Leblanc, general director of the Tour de France. "I'm really pleased the UCI has agreed to use this new urine test even though it is retroactive. It will take the incentive away from anyone who thinks they can use these products. The net is closing around doping."

The news shocked many on the Tour, still reeling from a doping scandal that nearly derailed the race in 1998.

"Unfortunately, doping is part of the sport as it is with any sport. It's great that there is testing so that people that are breaking the rules are caught and eliminated," said U.S. Postal Service team manager Mark Gorski. "It's good for the sport that there's tough testing. Even with all that's going and all the warnings, I think it's extremely disappointing that you still have people who are choosing to break the rules."

Italian Marco Pantani was expelled from last year's Giro d'Italia after failing a blood test. With just two stages to race and victory within his reach, he was found to have a hematocrit level of 52 percent.

Britian's Millar races to lead