The Tour de France got under way today with its field yet further depleted after the withdrawal of the Dutch team TVM.
Plagued by the ongoing drugs scandal overshadowing the race, just 96 cyclists from 14 teams started the race's 151.3-mile 19th leg, which was heading to Autun, France.TVM pulled out of the race this morning, further reducing the field from the 21 teams at the start at the start of the Tour.
Jean-Francois Pescheux, the Tour's sporting director, said the TVM team - which is at the center of the drug scandal - had informed him of its withdrawal. Staff at the hotel where the team had been staying said they left early today for the Netherlands.
The team cyclists are supposed to report for questioning in the French city of Reims on Monday following the end of the Tour.
Only three days remain in the tour, which has now lost seven teams and has fewer than 100 racers because of the doping scandal.
Two teams pulled out Thursday to protest police behavior, and investigators for the first time prevented a cyclist from competing after finding drugs in his possession.
Rodolfo Massi of Italy, who rides for the Casino team, was still in police custody for questioning after drugs were found in his room during a search earlier in the week, according to prosecutors in the northern city of Lille, where the probe is centered.
The treatment of the TVM team on Tuesday night was the focal point of the Tour riders' protest the following day that led to the annulment of the 17th stage.
The team's riders, suspected of drug abuse, were taken to hospital by police and given lengthy medical examinations, including blood, urine and hair tests.
Thursday's leg from Aix-les-Bains to Neuchatel seemed almost normal. The pack whittled down an early lead by a quartet of riders that included two former yellow jersey wearers, Stephen Heulot and Laurent Desbiens, both of France.
Tom Steels edged Erik Zabel in a sprint finish to post his third stage victory of the tour. Stuart O'Grady of Australia was third.
Steels has won a stage each in the three countires through which the tour has passed - Ireland, France and Switzerland.
Steels' victory the day after the disarray Wednesday also brought to mind his other victory last Friday when the riders first protested with a two-hour delay at the start of the stage.
All this is wearing on the riders.
Pantani has a lead of 5 minutes, 42 seconds over American Bobby Julich with defending champion Jan Ullrich another 14 seconds back.
After Friday's stage, there is the final time trial on Saturday at Le Creusot. In the previous time trial, Ullrich beat Pantani by 4:21.