Stricken by a mysterious ailment that team officials suspected was food poisoning, what was left of the PDM team withdrew Tuesday from the Tour de France. The casualties included Erik Breukink, a Dutchman who was third in the overall standings and who was a favorite in the three-week bicycle race.
Five riders for PDM, ranked No. One in the professional world, were lost Monday. The remaining four were not allowed by their coach, Jan Gisbers, to start Tuesday because they were suffering with high temperatures and pain.
“Erik says he has a fever and hurts very much in his head and body,” reported Breukink’s wife, Gea, from their home in Kalmthout, Belgium. “Not in his stomach, though. He says his stomach is fine.” Breukink and many of the other riders were returning home Tuesday night by team bus from Brittany.
None of the more than half dozen non-riders who accompany the team was affected.
Tour doctors suspected a viral ailment and discounted the possibility of food poisoning. Managers of the last three hotels the team has stopped at pointed out that PDM officials, mechanics and masseurs had eaten the same food as the riders and that none of them had fallen ill.
Unlike most of this entourage, however, the riders eat their lunch on the move, grabbing canvas bags stuffed with small sandwiches, pastries and pieces of fruit.
In St. Herblain, the town in Brittany where Tuesday’s stage ended, a PDM spokesman, Jonathan Boyer, said that tests carried out in a Dutch hospital on Nico Verhoeven, the first rider to pull out, hinted at a bacteriological infection.
“The tests showed that it is 95 percent certain that it was linked to food or to drink,” Agence France-Presse quoted Boyer as having said. “It is certainly not a viral problem. The riders were taken ill over Sunday night but we don’t know what it was that got them.”
The PDM coach, Gisbers, was equally insistent.”There are two specialists in the Netherlands and they’re nearly 100 percent sure it’s bacteria and are nearly 100 percent sure that it had something to do with some food poisoning,” he said.
In Rennes, where the team stayed Sunday night at the Hotel du Cheval d’Or, a spokesman, Valérie Rossi, strongly denied that the riders had gotten sick there. “They ate what everybody ate,” she said. On the dinner menu were quiche Lorraine, vegetable soup, grilled chicken, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, zucchini and yoghurt.
“Besides,” she added, “when they got here, one of them was already sick.”
That was Verhoeven, who had a temperature of 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit) then. It has since dropped to 38 degrees (100.5) and he has been discharged from the hospital in Den Bosch, Boyer said.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the team stayed at the Hotel St. Pierre in Ranes, where the menu included grilled chicken both nights. Rice and spaghetti accompanied it. “There was no complaint about the food and nobody who ate with them became sick,” said the owner, Françoise Delaunay, who described the riders as “charming boys.”
The menu was different – roast veal instead of chicken – at Thursday night’s hotel, the Cheval Blanc in Caudebec en Caux but the denial was identical. “I still have some guests who ate what the riders ate and nobody has been sick,” said the owner, Jean-Pierre Grunet.
On all other recent nights, PDM has shared a hotel with other teams and no other rider has reported similar symptoms.
The withdrawal of the team for medical reasons was described as a first in the 88-year history of the Tour de France. Teams have quit the race before for political reasons, especially when they raced as national representatives rather than for sponsors until the late 1960s.
Individual riders often withdraw for medical reasons, including broken bones, as the Tour’s leader, Rolf Sorensen, had to do last week after a crash shattered his collarbone.
Sickness, exhaustion and accidents can be expected to claim between a quarter and a third of the field of 198 riders who started the 3900-kilometer (2,423-mile) Tour in Lyon on July 6. It ends in Paris on July 28 with only one rest day, which, coincidentally will be Wednesday, to interrupt what can be eight hours’ nonstop racing each day.
Greg LeMond, the American who continues to wear the overall leader’s yellow jersey, often describes bicycle racing as the toughest sport there is and the Tour de France as its toughest race. No other sporting event demands day-in, day-out competition over a period as long as three weeks.
LeMond remained in the overall lead of the Tour on Tuesday on the 246-kilometer stage from Quimper to St. Herblain, which was won by Charly Mottet, a Frenchman with the RMO team. Johan Museeuw, a Belgian with Lotto, was second and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, a Soviet with Carrera, was third.
Mottet, who finished just seconds ahead of the pack, was timed in 5 hours 12 minutes 31 seconds, or an exceedingly fast 46 kilometers an hour. The riders arrived in St. Herblain more than an hour ahead of the fastest predicted schedule.
The riders who dropped out Monday were Verhoeven, Jean-Paul van Poppel, Uwe Raab, Falk Boden and Martin Earley. The casualties Tuesday were Breukink, Raul Alcala, Jos Van Aert and Sean Kelly.