The 13th stage of the Tour de France got underway Friday, July 18 in the city of Narbonne with one of cycling's young stars, Riccardo Ricco, sitting in jail after testing positive for a cutting-edge variant of EPO.
Ricco was led away by French gendarmes prior to the start of the 12th stage of the Tour
Ricco was expected to be placed under investigation later Friday in the city of Mirepoix, where he spent the night behind bars because tests taken after the fourth stage of the race, on July 8, detected the presence of CERA (Continuous Erythropietin Receptor Activator), a cutting-edge variant of the blood-boosting hormone EPO, in his urine.
The Italian became the third cyclist to leave the race after Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas of Spain.
Suspicion has also fallen on his Saunier Duval team, which dominated the early mountain stages of the Tour and dropped out of the race after the announcement of Ricco's test result. The entire team left the Tour of their own accord prior to Thursday's 12th stage.
Tour boss reserves judgement
It remains to be seen if the Saunier Duval team is guilty
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said Thursday that there were two ways to regard the team voluntarily leaving the Tour: "We can view them as responsible or it can look like a confession. The near future will tell us."
Saunier Duval sacked Ricco following his positive doping control test. Team manager Mauro Gianetti said in a statement that Ricco had infringed the team's code of ethics.
Ricco's Italian teammate Leonardo Piepoli was also sacked.
The 24-year-old Ricco won two stages on this year's race but left the Tour under a police escort on Thursday following his positive test for the banned blood booster after the fourth stage time trial.
Piepoli did not fail a doping control while he was at the race. The 37-year-old won the prestigious 10th stage to the summit finish of Hautacam in the Pyrenees.
Ricco's positive test is not only another damaging crisis for the Tour but also a major blow for Italian cycling.
A blow to the Tour and Italian cycling
Liquigas have their own scandal with Manuel Beltran
Team Liquigas manager Stefano Zanatta believes the fall from grace of one of Italy's top cycling stars will reflect badly on Italian cycling as a whole, but also on Ricco's past results, including this season's runner-up finish in the Giro d'Italia.
"I believe things are changing for better in the sport, but there's always going to be someone who doesn't respect the rules," Zanatta told reporters prior to the race's 13th stage. "What has happened with Ricco, I hope, is an isolated case -- but there's no doubt it looks bad. It looks bad on him, for his fans and on the sport of cycling in Italy."
He added: "Ricco passed all the anti-doping controls at the Giro, but now some people are going to be looking at his results and wondering. It's inevitable."
Ricco, a brash 24-year-old climber regarded as aloof and arrogant by much of the peloton, came into the Tour declaring which stages he would like to win.
Ricco's tour ends in jail
Riccardo Ricco was seen as the great hope of Italian cycling before his shameful arrest
The Italian promptly won stage six at Super-Besse in the Massif Central, and the first stage in the Pyrenees at Bagneres-de-Bigorre, the next day watching teammate Leonardo Piepoli claim a prestigious win atop the Hautacam.
Ricco's incarceration meant that he did not get as far as the 15th stage's summit finish at Prato Nevoso climb in his home nation of Italy.
Zanatta can fully empathize with Thursday's events.
The full glare of the doping spotlight fell on Liquigas when Beltran, a former teammate of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, was revealed as a cheat.
And the imminent arrival to the team of Italian star Ivan Basso, who will soon return from a doping ban relating to the Operation Puerto affair, has shed some controversy on his team.
Shamed Beltran awaiting test and career fate
Beltran is no longer smiling
Zanatta confirmed that the 37-year-old Beltran, who is currently suspended, will be sacked if the analysis on a B sample -- due out next week -- confirms his first doping positive.
"For us, it remains an isolated case," added Zanatta, although the Italian admitted his team had not yet established the kind of strict internal anti-doping program currently being used by CSC, Columbia and Garmin. "We don't have that kind of system in place yet, but all our riders are regularly subject to random tests. I hope we can show that we've nothing to hide," he said.
As a result of the doping results, only 158 riders were at the start of Friday's stage, a 182-kilometre course from Narbonne to the city of Nimes.
Australian Cadel Evans began the race with a one-second lead over Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, with American Christian Vandevelde 38 seconds behind in third place.
The stage has few difficulties and is likely to end in a mass sprint in which young British shooting star Mark Cavendish, who has proved himself to be by far the fastest finisher, will be looking for his fourth stage victory.