THE mood in Strasbourg this afternoon was bleak. The two outstanding favourites are on their way home and the teams in question have closed ranks. Cycling has been here before: one knee on the floor, taking a pummelling. It happened in Dublin in 1998, which, coincidentally, was also World Cup year, when a Festina team car was stopped by customs officials at the France-Belgium border and found to contain enough drugs for a city centre hospital.
This feels even worse. In a sporting sense, the Tour de France stood on the brink of a new era. An exciting, open race was on the cards with the showdown between Ullrich and Basso at its heart.
Now Strasbourg is in chaos and the overwhelming thought is: ?Let?s just call it off and start again fresh in London next year.?
There is confusion and a sense of resignation in the air. Here we go again, three weeks of doping scandals and the sport a wreck.
Earlier at the press centre, which is directly opposite the Holiday Inn that is home to the CSC team this weekend, a shell-shocked Bjarne Riis outlined his reasons for sending Ivan Basso home. It was not an acceptance that Basso had doped but that the rider would find the strain of racing the Tour de France while trying to defend his reputation impossible.
But surely, a rider with absolutely nothing to worry about wouldn?t go home? He?d fight on. There have been riders who have ridden through the storm ? not all of them doing themselves or the sport any credit. But do innocent men run?
Meanwhile, Astana-Würth are in, against all the odds and despite having the greatest number of riders named in the Spanish dossier. Vinokourov was not one of them. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that ASO could not exclude the team, only individuals.
So, this IS the big one then. Could it get any bigger? The two men most likely to win the Tour de France out before it even starts. And what sort of race are we going to get against a backdrop of such miserable revelations? Hopefully we will see some performances we can believe in. Perhaps now, finally, eight years after Festina and certainly eight years too late, the culture of omerta in the peloton will cease.
There must be no more looking and running the other way while the lion of truth savages one of the herd. Those who resort to using banned drugs and illegal performance-enhancing techniques should be ostracised ? whatever their excuses. No second chances. We?ve seen what taking a lenient, understanding approach does ? take it again and we?ll be back at the bottom of this messy, ugly circle again in another eight years.
What is so astonishing is that last night?s ceremonial launching of the Tour went ahead untainted when so much was bubbling away in the background. Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo ? they all turned up, smiles fixed to their faces. They signed autographs and then slipped away. Time will tell whether they are gone for good. At the moment the official line is that they are helping the investigation with their enquiries, of course.
Thank goodness the race starts tomorrow. Cycling fans will try to enjoy it while wondering how they should no reflect upon the Giro d?Italia. That?s two grand tours in a row tainted, isn?t it?
On we go, then. Let?s do a lap of France as best we can, step by step, scraping the metaphorical dog mess from our shoe as we go.
Remember 1998? When Marco Pantani rode through the mountains like a white knight on his Bianchi? The saviour of the Tour. Turned out he wasn?t what he seemed either. Let?s hope that this year?s saviour is someone we can believe in.
And let?s be thankful this didn?t happen in London. Let?s hope that in 12 months time the landscape of the sport looks entirely different. It?s time to shout ?Enough. Stop messing about with your blood.?
Anyone care to bet against an all-American top three now?