PARIS (AP) – Cycling cannot afford another doping scandal, and desperately needs a clean Tour de France winner this year.
With few big names left, the race has an unpredictable feel to it – not just in terms of who will wear the yellow jersey, but who and how many might get caught doping between the July 7 start and the July 29 finish.
“Cycling must not only get its credibility back, but even more its dignity,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said in an interview. “It is a romantic sport which must be dignified. There are cyclists, managers, sponsors and organizers fighting for its dignity.”
Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis are among the many riders either fired, suspended or under investigation for doping who won’t be at the starting line in London. Others are trying to clear their names in time for the prologue near Trafalgar Square.
“Doping is the enemy of cycling and the enemy of the Tour de France,” Prudhomme said. “Doping brings a certain absence of suffering, which is at the opposite of the cycling myth.”
On the eve of last year’s race, nine riders – including 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and 2005 runner-up Basso – were kicked out after being implicated in a Spanish doping investigation called Operation Puerto. More than 50 cyclists were implicated because of their alleged ties to Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor accused of running a blood-doping clinic in Madrid.
Basso received a two-year doping penalty from the Italian cycling federation in mid-June and has said he accepts the punishment. Basso confessed to “attempted doping,” though he said he never actually went through with it.
Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone at last year’s Tour and his case is now before an arbitration panel.
Of the nearly 200 riders in this year’s race, only Alexandre Vinokourov is considered a genuine favorite. The Kazakh rider is a dashing attacker. The wiry cyclist thrilled spectators along Paris’ Champs-Elysees on the final day in 2005, when, after attacking Lance Armstrong in the mountains, he still found the energy to win the final stage with a flourish.
Five of Vinokourov’s teammates on Team Astana withdrew from last year’s Tour because of Operation Puerto, and Vinokourov had to pull out because a minimum six riders are needed for a team to compete.
This year, Vinokourov said he already has been drug tested randomly several times by the International Cycling Union.
“Once before the Fleche Wallone, another time in Tenerife, at training, and at the start of April where I live in Monaco,” Vinokourov told sports daily L’Equipe on June 22. “If there was an anomaly, we would know, me the first. But I have not received no post to this day, no mail from the UCI.”
Last year’s runner-up, Oscar Pereiro, 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloeden and American Levi Leipheimer are dark horses this year. Pereiro will be declared the winner of last year’s Tour de France if Landis loses his appeal.
The 2007 Tour could be an important milestone in cycling’s fight against doping. If Leipheimer wins, he knows some will question whether he did it cleanly and thinks more has to be done “to convince everyone that not everyone is a cheater.”
Leipheimer’s Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel thinks cycling needs an independent watchdog body to oversee the sport.
The UCI has requested that all 600 ProTour cyclists sign a charter saying they are not involved in doping and promising to submit DNA samples to Spanish authorities for the Operation Puerto probe. Under the pledge, cyclists also agree to pay a year’s salary on top of a two-year ban if caught doping.
Prudhomme said anyone who refuses to sign the charter will be banned from the Tour.
A clean winner this year could help rejuvenate the sport, still reeling from Landis’ failed drug test last year and nearly nonstop doping accusations and admissions in the past few months. In the past week, riders Alessandro Petacchi, Leonardo Piepoli and Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Matthias Kessler were in the news for alleged doping.
Italian riders Petacchi and Piepoli had elevated levels of the asthma drug salbutamol, which can have performance-enhancing effects. Both riders have asthma and are authorized to use a certain amount of the drug.
Kessler’s team said he tested positive for elevated testosterone in April. Astana suspended him pending results of a backup test.
The head of France’s anti-doping agency said he is concerned that some prescribed drugs can act as masking agents for banned substances. Pierre Bordry said he expects to receive more than 1,000 requests for medical authorizations for drug use by the end of the year.
Bordry added that most were in sports where “you have an important physical effort.” With its 2,120 miles, 11 relatively flat stages, six mountain hikes, three summit finishes and two individual time trials, the Tour certainly fits that category.
Its toughness long has tempted riders to take drugs. Anne Gripper, anti-doping manager for the UCI, says her group is doing more unannounced tests this year on riders expected to do well or considered at risk of doping.
And she thinks riders are getting the message.
“They’re getting a sense now that the risks are higher than the potential benefits,” she said.