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Tour de France News for June 17, 2004

Edited by John Stevenson

Beloki confirms Tour absence

Joseba Beloki has confirmed that he will not ride this year's Tour de France. After Beloki's departure from the Brioches la Boulangere team yesterday, Brioches team manager Jean Bernaudeau said he thought it was impossible for Beloki to find another team with which to ride the Tour, but Beloki says this isn't the case.

"I am free, but the reason I have decided not to ride the Tour is that I am not in condition to do so," he said. Beloki said that his relationship with Brioches la Boulangere had gradually deteriorated. The situation had not been helped by him being unable to use the allergy medication he has used all his life and for which he has a UCI permit. The decision by the team sponsor not to renew for 2005 meant he preferred to leave, said Beloki.

Beloki is now planning to find a team that will support him for a comeback at the Vuelta a Espana. He has not ruled out joining Liberty Seguros, the team run by Manolo Saiz, his former manager at ONCE.

"That is something that can be discussed," he said. "I am available and if someone is interested in putting me on the roster he should call me. I am not closing any doors, but my intention is to ride [for a Spanish team]. Living abroad is difficult and I am a person that needs to be very united with my team-mates and team support," Beloki said.

Boonen can't wait

Quick.Step-Davitamon's most successful rider this season, Tom Boonen is growing increasingly anxious as his first Tour de France participation draws near. Boonen, winner already of major races including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour de Picardie, took the lead of the Ster Elektrotoer Wednesday after victory in the prologue time trial. The big Belgian will go head to head with Erik Zabel, Oscar Freire, Tom Steels, and other sprints throughout the Dutch tour, but his thoughts are still focused on the Tour de France.

"At the beginning of the season, I didn't think riding the Tour was absolutely necessary," Boonen explained at a press conference before the Ster Elektrotoer prologue. "But now I'm happy and I can't wait to get there. I feel like if I didn't ride it would be a mistake. To race and finish the Tour would mean to get stronger and step up to the next level."

Boonen has evolved quickly into a bunch sprinter capable of beating the fastest finishers, though he has yet to come face to face with Alessandro Petacchi, winner of eight Giro d'Italia stages this year and undeniably the top sprinter of the moment.

"I want to win at least one stage," Boonen said. "Being second or third doesn't matter, and I know that to win I have to beat Petacchi. Maybe I'm in for a rude surprise, but I think it's possible."

Unlike some riders who enter their first Tour de France with plans to race only a week, or ride conservatively to use the race as a learning experience, Boonen is very clear in announcing his ambitions.

"I'm going to race all out because otherwise I might as well stay home," he said.

Verbruggen trusts Armstrong

UCI President Hein Verbruggen, asked for comment on the latest round of doping allegations in the sport, providing a firm stance on both the UCI's efforts to curb drug use and added his own conviction that five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is not among the cheats.

"Most of all, these people are trying to make money," he said of the new book targeting Lance Armstrong. "I've seen the results of Armstrong's medical controls. I'm told that his medical file is impeccable and I know he's not using banned substances. I believe in the results and I trust Lance. My opinion isn't going to change.

"In six years this hasn't stopped, and it's not going to stop," Verbruggen said of criticisms linking doping with cycling since the 1998 Festina affair, quoted in l'Equipe. "Our problems have always received more press than other sports, but that's how it goes. There are always cheaters, I know that, but we're fighting against them. We're doing everything we can and we can't go beyond that."

Meanwhile, the UCI has come under fire once more for not having signed the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) World Anti-Doping Code. The UCI remains the only Olympic federation which has not signed the code.

"The UCI is dragging its feet," said French minister of sport Jean-François Lamour in an AP interview. "I think that's unfortunate, but I'm sure [the UCI] will sign very soon."

Lamour still expressed hope, despite his current dismay over the state of affairs in cycling, that the sport has a cleaner future ahead.

"I'm convinced there are young riders in the clubs who are training and who are practicing the sport clean," he said. "They need our confidence... I admire these cyclists who compete in such a hard sport, and I'm sad that the Tour de France bears this image."

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