Originally created 07/05/99

Tour de France remains shadowed by drugs



CHALLANS, France -- The cyclists could hardly miss the signs along the rain-slicked country roads of the Tour de France.

"Ride clean, and we love you," one banner said.

"Say No to EPO," said another, referring to the performance-enhancing drug a number of riders have acknowledged using.

While it tries to shake free from a drug scandal, the race goes on, with Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia winning the first stage of cycling's showcase event on Sunday.

Kirsipuu, who rides for Casino, won after a final sprint by the pack, edging Tom Steels of Belgium and Erik Zabel of Germany.

The overall leader remained Lance Armstrong, the Texan who won Saturday's prologue by seven seconds in his first Tour de France since overcoming testicular cancer.

Sunday's 124-mile stage began in a downpour in Montaigu in France's western Vendee region. The rain eased but then returned, making for a soggy beginning to the three-week race.

The stage was marked by a long breakaway by France's Thierry Gouvenou, who left the pack at 48 miles but was overcome late in the race by Ludo Dierckxsens. The Belgian was overtaken himself just before the final sprint.

Finishing fourth was Stuart O'Grady of Australia, followed by Silvio Martinelli of Italy. George Hincapie of the United States was eighth.

Since the pack arrived together, the riders finished with the same times.

As the race began, director Jean-Marie Leblanc referred to the scandal that overshadowed last year's event. He said cycling is presented with a new opportunity and has three weeks to rehabilitate itself.

"We are happy to contribute to that," he said.

Race organizers have announced that spot drug tests will be taken in the coming days.

Many top riders are missing from this year's race, including the three previous winners: defending champion Marco Pantani of Italy, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Bjarne Riis of Denmark.

Armstrong scored a stunning personal triumph by winning Saturday's 4¨-mile time trial. The 28-year-old rider won the 1993 world championship and competed for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and 1996.

In October 1996, however, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He had surgery to remove his right testicle and brain lesions. He returned to racing early last year.

"At the beginning of the season, my legs hurt and I was too heavy," he said, adding that training in the Alps and Pyrenees helped him immensely.

"My legs and my spirit are better than before my illness," he said.

He then gave away one of his secrets: He sleeps like a baby.