STRASBOURG, France — A major doping scandal threw the first Tour de France of the post-Lance Armstrong era into chaos Friday, with favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso forced out of the world's premier cycling race under a cloud of suspicion.
The Tour, already wide open without Armstrong, will begin with no clear favorite to succeed the Texan who retired last year after his record seventh straight win. The three-week, 2,272-mile race will have a reduced field of 176 riders, instead of the 189 originally expected.
The scandal centers on Eufemiano Fuentes, a sports doctor in Madrid who allegedly helped dozens of riders with performance-enhancing blood doping.
Johan Bruyneel, coach of the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team, said the Spanish investigation "is probably the biggest doping scandal in cycling and maybe even in sports ever.
"There's been a lot of damage done already, but it's getting so big that cycling is losing credibility," Bruyneel told Cyclingnews.com.
The scandal has been brewing for weeks. Late Thursday, Spanish authorities sent race organizers more than 40 pages summarizing police investigations into a ring that allegedly supplied riders and other athletes with banned drugs and performance-enhancing blood transfusions.
Police reportedly found anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, the endurance-boosting substance EPO and about 100 bags of frozen blood, many marked in a secret code that identified professional cyclists.
Today on TV
Tour de France prologue in Strasbourg, 5:30 a.m. (replays throughout the day), OLN.
The doping involved drawing oxygen-rich blood at high altitudes to obtain a concentrate of red blood cells, then injecting them back into riders before a race to boost endurance.
Nine Tour de France riders — Basso and Ullrich included — were implicated in the police report, cycling's governing body said.
Their teams were informed and, with the exception of the Astana-Wurth team, all quickly told their racers they were out.
Astana-Wurth had five riders implicated: Joseba Beloki of Spain, runner-up at the 2002 Tour; Allan Davis from Australia; Alberto Contador and Isidro Nozal from Spain; and Sergio Paulinho from Portugal.
At Astana, "it looks like a system of team doping," said the Tour's new director, Christian Prudhomme.
The team withdrew the five riders, leaving Astana with fewer than the minimum six needed to start and forced out the entire squad — including contender Alexander Vinokourov from Kazakhstan.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, and his T-Mobile teammate, Oscar Sevilla, were among riders implicated. So was Ullrich's longtime adviser, Rudy Pevenage.
Jean-Marie Leblanc, outgoing Tour director, said the Spanish investigators cited doping "dosages" apparently prescribed for Ullrich, Basso, Sevilla and Francesco Mancebo, who was also withdrawn from the Tour by his team, AG2R.
Asked whether T-Mobile would consider cutting ties with Ullrich, T-Mobile spokesman Stefan Wagner replied, "Certainly ... we are now demanding evidence of his innocence."
Ullrich, at age 32 nearing the end of his career, said he was "absolutely shocked."
"I could cry, going home in such good shape," he said. "I need a few days for myself and then I'll try to prove my innocence with the help of my lawyer. And I'll go on fighting."
Basso, runner-up to Armstrong last year, had been hoping to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in the same year.
Basso told his CSC team he was innocent. But the team said the suspicion would have made the Italian's participation in the Tour difficult.
"It would be big chaos if those riders remain in the race," said his team manager, Bjarne Riis. "We have to protect cycling."
With Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov and Mancebo out, other riders have greater hopes of succeeding Armstrong as Tour de France champion, or at least taking a place on the podium. But no one stands out as a firm favorite in the reshaped field.
Americans Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis are contenders. So, too, is Spain's Alejandro Valverde, the 26-year-old whom Armstrong said last year "could be the future of cycling."
• Armstrong settled his libel case against a British newspaper over doping allegations after winning a preliminary court ruling. He sued The Sunday Times of London over a June 2004 article that referred to a book, "LA Confidential — The Secrets of Lance Armstrong." The High Court in London ruled in favor of Armstrong in a pretrial motion. Later, both sides announced that a settlement had been reached. Terms were not disclosed, but it means the case will not go to trial.