PAU, France (AP) – Cycling and its premier event, the Tour de France, were reeling Tuesday from yet another blow that threatened what was left of the event’s credibility: a failed doping test by one of its biggest stars.
Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a banned blood transfusion after winning last weekend’s time trial, prompting his Astana team to pull out and sending police on a raid of the team hotel.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said that although the race would go on, the latest drug case showed cycling’s testing system doesn’t work.
“It’s an absolute failure of the system,” he said. “It is a system which does not defend the biggest race in the world. This is a system which can’t last.”
Even before Tuesday’s bombshell, Tour leader Michael Rasmussen was battling doping suspicions because he skipped drug controls before the Tour start. He still seems likely to claim victory in Paris on Sunday. All this on top of the lingering scandal involving 2006 champion Floyd Landis, who was unable to defend his crown because he failed a drug test during last year’s Tour.
“It’s almost impossible to be at the front of the pack these days without doping,” said Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a frequent critic of the way cycling is managed.
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Vinokourov, who placed third in the 2003 Tour, is a fan favorite, admired for his grit, determination and string of stage wins at this and previous Tours.
He had been considered a pre-race favorite to win, but crashed in the first week of the three-week race. With stitches in both knees, he struggled for a few days but recovered to win stages Saturday and Monday – a turnaround that now seems too good to be true. His positive test was announced by his team, whose manager, Marc Biver, said Vinokourov was sent home. The backup B-sample test results were expected by the end of the week.
“Alexandre denies having manipulated his blood,” Biver said, adding that the rider believed his crash may have resulted in “blood anomalies in his body.”
Pat McQuaid, president of cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, said he couldn’t comment as long as the backup B-sample result wasn’t confirmed.
“We have a process in place, and we have to see this process through,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Many of cycling’s recent stars have been tainted by drug allegations.
Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, retired after he was linked to a doping ring in Spain. Italian Ivan Basso, once seen as the next big thing after Lance Armstrong, is serving a doping ban.
And Armstrong’s seven consecutive wins are widely viewed by many in France with suspicion.
The Astana team was disqualified from the Tour on the eve of last year’s race after five of its riders were implicated in a vast Spanish doping probe known as Operation Puerto.
The French sports daily L’Equipe, which first reported Vinokourov’s positive test on its Web site, said the analysis was conducted by the Chatenay-Malabry lab on the outskirts of Paris. It said two distinctive types of red blood cells were found in the A sample and showed that Vinokourov received a blood transfusion from a compatible donor shortly before the time trial.
A senior French anti-doping official confirmed to The Associated Press that there was a positive test for a blood transfusion taken from a rider at the Tour on Saturday, but said he didn’t know the name of the cyclist involved. He said the test found two different types of blood, one from the rider, one from a donor.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made.
Doping expert Michel Audran, of the University of Montpellier in southern France, said he was stunned a rider would resort to a blood transfusion – a technique that has been detectable since 2004. That was when U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton was caught and suspended for two years.
Blood transfusions work by increasing an athlete’s count of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles.
“Performance can increase between 5 and 20 percent,” depending on how much is injected, Audran said.
Condemnation of Vinokourov was particularly vehement from French teams, whose riders have struggled in this and previous Tours against competitors they have long suspected of doping. French teams and laws are more rigorous than most when it comes to fighting doping.
“It’s pitiful,” Roger Legeay of the Credit Agricole squad, said of Vinokourov’s case.
“It’s proof that the fight against doping is working. … There’s no pity, even for the big names, and that is great,” he told RTL radio.
British rider David Millar, who came back from a two-year doping ban himself and now lobbies for a clean sport, said: “With a guy of his stature and class, in cycling’s current situation, we might as well pack our bags and go home.”
Around 30 police officers, some in plain clothes, descended on Astana’s La Palmeraie hotel in Pau and sealed it off, preventing more members of the team from leaving.
The Vinokourov news broke just hours after Danish rider Rasmussen fielded questions about why he had failed to inform cycling officials of his whereabouts for drug tests. The 33-year-old mountain expert insisted he was guilty only of absent-mindedness.
“I have made a mistake. UCI has given me a recorded warning for that administrative mistake. And I accept that and take full responsibility for that,” Rasmussen said.
“I am sorry that the situation is coming out now at the moment that I wear the yellow jersey, and it’s harming a sport that I really love, and it is harming the Tour de France,” he said.
Yet Patrice Clerc, head of Amaury Sports Organization, which owns the Tour, said it “never crossed my mind” to halt the race after the latest revelations about Vinokourov.
“Everyone will feel betrayed,” he said. “The public wants to see a credible winner.”
He added: “We have started a war against doping. … It’s out of the question to give up.”
Associated Press Writers Jerome Pugmire in Pau, John Leicester in Paris and Erica Bulman in Geneva contributed to this report.