PARIS, France - Following reports that Italian Cycling great Marco Pantani died as a direct result of a coke overdose, both the United States Cycling Federation and the Amaury Sport Organization have moved to ban all soda beverages from the team tables.
Jean-Marie Leblanc, head of the AMO which organizes the Tour de France, cycling's largest and most prestigious event, issued this statement.
"For years, we have fought to keep cycling clean of performance enhancing drugs. Who would have guessed that we had overlooked such an obvious but dangerous substance? Monsieur Pantani was one of this sport's finest riders, having won Le Tour de France in 1998. How sad to think we might still have him today had he been imbibing in Gatorade instead of Coke! You can be sure we shall not repeat our past mistake, and for this year's racing season, we shall be watching closely to be certain that none of the riders are sneaking a Pepsi when we are not looking!"
The news did not sit well with long time Tour de France sponsor Coca Cola Corporation, though. While the soft-drink giant also produces the sport drink Powerade, it is the Coca Cola brand that is the corporation's powerhouse. At a Press Conference held at their Atlanta, Georgia headquarters, the beverage conglomerate disputed the allegations that its products were in any way responsible for the death of the Italian Cycling Hero.
"The Coca Cola Corporation is saddened by the news of Marco Pantani's passing, and is distressed by the autopsy findings that suggest our product is in any way related to his early demise. While we admit that our product can be addicting, years of study has shown that Coke is perfectly safe when consumed in moderate quantities by responsible drinkers. We are appalled that the USCF and the ASO would seek to deny professional cyclists their freedom of choice when it comes to what they drink with their meals.
In the light of the USCF's and ASO's decision to ban our products from cycling events, we may have to rethink our sponsorship of the Tour de France. After all, it would send a conflciting message to young cyclists everywhere if a company that produces a banned substance maintained such a high dollar, high profile presence at these events."
The Tour de France, especially, has been very sensitive about any allegations of doping in recent years, since several high profile scandals involving performance enhancing substances marred the Tour's image some years ago. Tour participants are regularly and randomly subjected to both blood and urine tests to determine if and banned substances are being used. Lance Armstrong, 5 time winner of the illustrious Tour and current reigning champion, has been subjected to more blood and urine tests while riding than he ever was during his stringent treatments to defeat testicular and brain cancer in the 90's. Commented one Postal Team mechanic concerning the number of tests Armstrong has endured, "By the end of the Tour, they've poked his arm so many times he looks like a skid-row heroin junkie, he's got so many 'track marks'. I don't know why they don't just put in a permanent spigot on his vein."
Reached in Europe, where he is currently preparing for the 2004 Tour, Armstrong had only this to say, "Let 'em check me all they want. They've never found anything illegal in my system yet, and they're never going to. Even if I have to give up my Shiner Bock's, they're never going to disqualify me from the Tour for substance abuse!"
Armstrong, only the second man in the history of the Tour de France to win 5 consecutive titles, will attempt to become the first rider to ever win 6 TdF championships when the Tour begins in July of this year. Leblanc promises that Tour Officials will watch closely to be sure he doesn't try and gain an unfair and dangerous advantage by drinking Coke before or during the race.