Tour de Farce taking a PR hit

One French newspaper ran a mock obituary for the scandal-tainted Tour de France. Another said the race had become a joke and should be canceled.

France reeled yesterday from the news that race leader Michael Rasmussen had been ousted by his team, Rabobank, for lying about his whereabouts during prerace training, the third blow this week to the venerable 104-year-old Tour. In recent days, two riders - including star Alexandre Vinokourov - were thrown out because of positive drug tests.

France Soir newspaper ran a mock death notice on its cover. It said the Tour died yesterday "at age 104, after a long illness."

Liberation newspaper's editorial read: "The Tour must be stopped."

"This procession of cyclists has been transformed into a caravan of ridicule," Liberation wrote. "If the organizers really want to save cycling, they should stop the competition and declare a pause of a few years, enough time to treat these athletes-turned-druggies."

L'Equipe sports daily, by contrast, was more positive, saying the blow was an opportunity for organizers to clean up the race - "but the Tour must seize it quickly."

Meanwhile, the Tour's director, Christian Prudhomme, accused cycling's governing body of not following its own rules to prevent Rasmussen from even entering the sport's biggest race.

But the International Cycling Union has said it plans to scrap the rule that keeps a rider from competing in major tours after missing a doping test.

Article 220 of the UCI's anti-doping rules says: "In case of a recorded warning or a missed test in a period of 45 days before the start of a major Tour, the rider is not allowed to participate in that Tour." The major tours are of France, Italy and Spain.

"It would have been good if this rule had been applied," Prudhomme said yesterday after the Tour's 17th stage. "If the rule had been applied, it would have avoided a lot of troubles for us."

UCI president Pat McQuaid said the rule was "unjust," because a rider could be excluded for being even a day late in communicating his whereabouts.

As for the race itself, Italy's Daniele Bennati won the 17th stage, and Spain's Alberto Contador became the new overall leader.

Bennati won a sprint at the end of the 117-mile ride from Pau to Castelsarrasin, as the doping-marred event staggered north toward its finish Sunday in Paris.

Bennati, riding for the Lampre Fondital team, won a Tour stage for the first time. He led a small breakaway group and finished in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 4 seconds.

Contador had been second overall to Rasmussen after Wednesday's final ride in the Pyrenees, when the Dane's Rabobank team took him out of the race.

Contador, a 24-year-old Discovery Channel rider, leads by 1 minute, 53 seconds over Cadel Evans, of Australia. *