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Doping at the Tour

July 3, 2010

As the 97th Tour de France gets underway in Rotterdam in the Netherlands this Saturday, bikes are to be scanned for illegal motors, a practice that has been dubbed mechanical doping.

Fabian Cancellara during the Tour de France
Using motorized bikes is said to be the latest form of dopingImage: AP

Bikes used at the Tour de France, which starts in Rotterdam this Saturday and ends in Paris on July 25, will be scanned for illegal motors, following rumors that Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara used so-called mechanical doping in the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix.

In a film circulated on the video-sharing website Youtube, former Tour de France cyclist Davide Cassani reveals this new form of cheating - riding bikes that are, in fact, motorbikes in disguise.

"These machines have been around since 2004 and they have been used in races by professional cyclists," Cassani told France's RTL radio.

"There are a lot of benefits using such a bike. You can reach 50 kilometers an hour. It has its motor in the frame and a battery between the pedals," he explains.

Suspicious bike swap

The Italian TV corporation Rai has alleged that Cancellara swapped bikes suspiciously during the recent Paris-Roubaix race before going on to victory. The rider, however, insists the suggestion he used mechanical doping is ridiculous.

Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara
Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara has been linked with mechanical dopingImage: AP

But the International Cycling Union (UCI) is erring on the side of caution - on June 18 it announced it would tighten its bike checking procedures by introducing a new type of scanner.

"From now on, race service will be subject to stricter regulation in order to ensure that only equipment that has been checked at the start or finish can be used during competitions," the UCI said in a statement.

Doping scandals

Meanwhile, drugs doping is once again casting a shadow over the Tour. Italian rider Riccardo Ricco tested positive three days before the off and doping revelations from former rider Floyd Landis have implicated seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, who is taking part in what he says will be his last Tour this year.

Ricco was handed a two-month suspended jail sentence and a 3,000 euro fine for doping during the 2008 Tour de France by a French court on Tuesday.

The Tour's organizers insist, however, that it is now harder than ever to cheat.

"Considerable progress has been made these past two years," says Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France.

Riccardo Ricco
Italy's Ricco was handed a suspended sentence for doping during the 2008 TourImage: AP

"Now cyclists have to report where they are morning, noon and night every day of the Tour. They also have to carry a biological passport which is designed to root out not only cheats who test positively in traditional tests but those who don't but whose blood changes its composition suspiciously over time," he explains.

Riders are also subjected to surprise tests before and during the tour.

Criticism from the anti-doping agency

The French anti-doping agency (AFLD), which this year will not be taking part in the drug control process, says that relying on biological passports alone is dangerous.

The AFLD says additional information from customs authorities and police investigations is needed in the fight against doping.

It also accused the ICU of giving preferential treatment to riders such as Lance Armstrong and last year's winner Alberto Contador when it came to surprise testing.

The ICU and the AFLD have a long history of clashes. In 2009, they worked together during the Tour de France, but the partnership was a failure, according to AFLD President Pierre Bordry, who said it would have been impossible to renew the partnership this year.

Author: John Laurenson/ng
Editor: Andreas Illmer