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Doping and Le Tour

July 26, 2010

The 2010 Tour de France finished on Sunday, without a single rider testing positive for doping. Critics say the Tour is not clean, and are pointing the finger at world cycling's testing procedure.

Marco Pantani leads a sit-in of riders after the 1998 Tour de France became overly-focused on doping
Doping reared its head in 1998, when riders held a sit-in to protest against police raidsImage: AP

A second successive Tour de France has ended without news of a single rider testing positive for a banned substance. The organizers are happy, with Tour chief Christian Prudhomme calling it the "greatest Tour he has experienced." But fans and critics remain to be convinced that the Tour is suddenly totally clean.

"The tests that are currently being done are a joke, they are very poor," German anti-doping expert Werner Franke told Deutsche Welle. "No doubt about it, it (doping) all continues, but is no longer discovered. It's the money that counts; it's the image that counts – and nobody will say anything against that," said the biologist from the German cancer research center.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) was again responsible for doping tests during this year’s Tour, with officials from the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) acting as independent observers.

French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) chief Pierre Bordry has criticized the way tests are run. "They are organized in such a way that the riders know about them beforehand," he said. The AFLD shadowed UCI’s testing processes in 2009, and accused world cycling's governing body of showing favoritism towards the leading riders, like winner Alberto Contador.

Bordry's organization made a request to carry out its own drug tests on this year's Tour, which was turned down by WADA. The international agency said that French law did not totally conform with the global anti-doping code, meaning any positive results gained would lead to a legislative stalemate.

'Unprecedented' testing

Austrian rider Bernhard Kohl during the 2008 Tour de France
Kohl was the last top-level rider to be banned for dopingImage: AP

The AFLD led the testing on the 2008 Tour, when seven riders were caught using CERA, a new variant of the banned red-blood-cell booster erythropoietin. No rider has tested positive for a banned substance since the UCI took over testing last year.

Speeds and levels of performance in sprints, time trials and mountain stages have not dropped over this time period though.

UCI President Pat McQuaid promised an unprecedented level of testing during the 2010 Tour, with at least 600 doping tests being carried out. "We also have a list of 55 riders, like the favorites, who will have extra tests," McQuaid said before the Tour.

The UCI has sought to tighten up the testing procedure, employing chaperons to watch over riders from the finish line until after they have provided urine or blood samples. Cycling’s governing body also began a biological passport scheme in 2008, where certain blood markers were monitored in every rider. Long-term variations would signal doping.

A spokesman for the UCI refused to comment on criticism of its testing procedures. WADA also declined to comment until after the release of a report by its independent observers in the coming weeks.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong bowed out of the sport this week, with doping allegations still following him. Disgraced 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis has said that he saw his former teammate take drugs on numerous occasions.

Landis' claims have led to a U.S. federal investigation into the use of government money for doping by Armstrong and his former U.S. Postal team.

Allegations lingering

Austrian rider Bernhard Kohl was one of those suspended for using CERA in 2008. He was crowned King of the Mountains and finished third overall, before testing positive and later confessing to doping.

Lance Armstrong during the 2010 Tour de France
Armstrong's record as the best ever Tour de France cyclist has been tainted by allegationsImage: AP

"You have to dope to make it a level playing-field," Kohl told Deutsche Welle. "The Tour de France is 3,500 kilometers, it is very hard." The 28-year-old said that calling the last two Tours "completely clean" was "an illusion".

Initially given a two-year suspension, his ban was later extended until 2014. Kohl announced his retirement in 2009.

To help combat the use of drugs in the sport in the future, Bernhard Kohl also points to the role of cycling's governing bodies. "It is the same people, at the top of cycling, who must do their part. But I believe it will be difficult to put an end to it."

Author: Thomas Sheldrick (APN/Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner