Dopes may end Tour scandals

This year's Tour de France has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cycling fan and EADT deputy editor Dominic Castle reportsTHERE was an awful inevitability about the doping scandals that have engulfed this year's Tour de France.

This year's Tour de France has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cycling fan and EADT deputy editor Dominic Castle reports

THERE was an awful inevitability about the doping scandals that have engulfed this year's Tour de France.

On Saturday we had watched, incredulous, as the Kazakh rider and early Tour favourite Alexandre Vinokourov destroyed his rivals with a blistering time trial, the 13th stage of the race. We were incredulous because of the deep slashes on Vinokourov's knees and elbows that were stitched up tight after a terrible fall on the fifth day. The teak-tough man from Petropavlovsk was in trouble.

He had reportedly adopted a yoga position while his knees were repaired to allow him to ride but he struggled along in the days after the accident, shepherded along by his team-mates in the sky-blue Astana strip and he was way down in the race order.

And then he turned in that stunning performance. Charging along at around 30mph on a filthy wet and lumpy course, he won the stage by over a minute, a huge margin at this level. As he took the plaudits I turned to my son and said; “I hope that wasn't another Landis.”

On last year's Tour the American Floyd Landis, again another favourite, failed spectacularly on Stage 16; basically, he blew up, barely able to turn the pedals of his bike over. The next day he put in what was one of the most talked-about performances for years, ripping up Stage 17 and winning handsomely.

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He went on to win the Tour - at least until news broke that he had failed a drug test for testosterone. He denies any wrongdoing and continues to fight the case.

Back to this year and after Vinokourov's stunning time trial came another amazing effort when the Kazakh won the appallingly hard mountain Stage 15. How could he have managed that?

We know now. Vinokourov and the entire Astana team were thrown out of the Tour after he failed a blood doping test. He had taken a transfusion of blood which boosted his red blood count and subsequently his performance.

Meanwhile, another cloud was fogging the success of the Danish rider Michael Rasmussen, nicknamed 'The Chicken', a specialist in the mountains who had put in some tremendous efforts and was the holder of the yellow jersey as the race leader. He had missed four doping tests before the Tour, a serious offence under the rigorously enforced anti-doping rules.

His shrugging explanation for missing the tests was that it was an 'administrative error' on his part. Excuse me? Administrative error? This is a man so methodical and precise that he peels the stickers from his bike to save an extra gram or two of weight.

But 'The Chicken' was properly plucked when it emerged that he'd been lying to his team; he told them that he had been training in Mexico. The truth was that he was in Italy and Rabobank's incensed management sacked him and the Tour lost the maillot jaune.

And there have been other miseries; Cristian Moreni of Cofidis ended his own and his team's involvement in the tour by testing positive for testosterone and it emerged that T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz, already out after an early crash, failed a test in June.

The reaction has been huge, cycling forums are jammed with furious fans despairing of the men they regarded as heroes, colleagues of the riders involved have been by turns angry and resigned.

As a cycling fan, I have endured the taunts of football fans (though what they have to feel so smug about I'm not sure) and others about the drug-riddled nature of the sport I love.

Yet cyclists are tested more frequently and rigorously than any other athletes - some riders have been tested 14 times during this Tour already - so the odds of catching bad apples are high and the sanctions are stiff. A two-year ban and the loss of a year's salary is the starting point. No other sports take testing as seriously.

While doping has always been a part of the Tour and the attitude of the millions of French people who line the roads to cheer the riders has often been a Gallic shrug at best - can you really expect athletes to spend three weeks riding thousands of miles just on muesli and bananas, monsieur? - I think that times are changing.

The attitude of the riders is changing too, with a growing sense in the peloton that doping has to stop, that they can and should ride clean.

The anger of Britain's Bradley Wiggins, unfortunately for him a colleague of Moreni at Cofidis, is an example: “It is completely gutting to have to quit the Tour, but everyone knows where I stand on doping. It's pure stupidity on the part of Moreni. When you get a team of 26 riders there may always be one idiot.”

But if they're serious about making a change then they have to take a big part of the responsibility themselves and name and shame the cheats who ride with them and the bogus 'trainers' and shady doctors who flit around the margins of the sport's shadows.The officials running the sport and the big races are also showing a sterner resolve to root out the wrong 'uns. “Rasmussen's exit is the best thing that can happen to the Tour,” said director Christian Prudhomme yesterday.

But we've been here before and there have been plenty of promises of a fresh start and a new dawn for cycling from the men who run it.

Ironically, what may ultimately purge the sport is the thing at the heart of the problems; money.

There's a lot of cash involved here, with multi-million euro budgets for the big teams and millionaire star riders with Monte Carlo homes, with huge TV fees and sponsors' money swilling around, plenty to lure a cyclist to the dark side.

But that might start to dry up as firms decide that it is not good for their profile to be associated with cycling - long-time sponsors T-Mobile are widely expected to announce the end of their £18m annual involvement with the sport at the end of this year's race.

It won't kill the Tour; anyone who thinks it will doesn't understand just how deeply it is embedded in the French national psyche, but it might help focus minds on cleaning up pro cycling for good.

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