By Mark Jones
DUBLIN – If the technical and logistical side of the Tour de France en Irlande passed off without any great hitches, the start of the world’s greatest cycle race was overshadowed by events out of the saddle.
Chief among the controversies was the seizure of a cache of illegal performance-enhancing drugs destined for the Tour on the border between Belgium and France and then Ireland’s biggest names in cycling, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, found themselves embroiled in a row with the national broadcasting company, RTE.
Kelly, who rode the Tour 14 times in a glittering career, was incensed by the content of an hour-long RTE program previewing the race. Kelly initially understood he was to have a significant input into the preview, but he then learned he would be appearing for just a few minutes near the end.
Claiming he had been snubbed and refusing to have anything to do with the program, Kelly also accused RTE of leaving other Irish Tour riders – Martin Earley, Paul Kimmage and Laurence Roche – out in the cold and he refused to do any interviews with the station while the race was in Ireland.
Kelly was further angered by comments made by Stephen Roche during the program. Asked why he was leaving Ireland and returning to live in France, Roche, who won the Tour de France in 1987, is reported to have said, “When you see so many kids on street corners, so much delinquency and especially the drink, it does frighten me.”
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“RTE was wrong to screen the clip from Stephen,” Kelly said, referring to Roche. “It was pre-recorded and it hadn’t any place being included in a program on the Tour. The damage has been done and I told RTE that I was very, very disappointed with the whole affair.”
Meanwhile, the depressing spat was being relegated to the sidelines when news of the arrest of an employee of the Festina team broke. Willy Voet, a masseur with the team, had been driving to Ireland in an official Tour vehicle when he was stopped by French police.
It was later claimed that the vehicle contained capsules of the banned drug EPO, as well as anabolic steroids and a number of syringes. The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, said Festina riders would not be banned from the race until the findings of inquiry were made known. “It was not a rider who committed the offense,” he said.
Despite less than ideal weather, large crowds turned out to see the Tour’s opening time trial through the streets of Dublin’s city center Saturday, which was won by England’s Chris Boardman. The first major stage of 110 miles started in Stephen Roche’s home village of Dundrum to the south of Dublin and wound through county Wicklow before returning to the capital.
The second stage passed through Sean Kelly’s hometown of Carrick-on-Suir before finishing in Cork. The Tour cavalcade then traveled by ferry back to France and the remaining two and a half weeks of the race.